On a fall day, with leaves filling trees and splattering pavement with color, Tom Clark looked a riot of hues himself: sweatshirt red as a fire truck, white painter’s pants covered with daubs of orange, pink, green and blue.
Even more evocative was the color the artist applied to a curving wall at St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church on Kuykendall Road near Matthews as he worked to create a scene depicting the church’s patron saint. For Clark, 58, an American iconographer who lives in Greece, color – luscious color – is primary.
“All the brilliant color – I want it just to explode onto people,” he said.
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The painting is the latest in a seven-year effort to decorate the church interior. In 2007, Clark painted a huge portrait of Christ edged with gold on the dome. He’s also done images of St. John the Baptist, St. Michael and others for the iconostasis, a wooden screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave.
Unlike ancient figures from the 2,000-year-old Christian tradition, St. Nektarios is of the modern era. He died in 1920, a date Clark placed in perspective by thinking of his hometown baseball team, the Chicago Cubs.
The saint’s death came 12 years after the hard-luck Cubbies last won the World Series.
Unlike earlier Christian figures, St. Nektarios faced the camera. Pictures of him are on the Internet. “It’s a challenge to have photographs of a saint,” said Clark, for whom making art is an act of faith.
Before beginning an icon, Clark does research. For St. Nektarios, he could look out the window of his studio in Athens and see the island of Aegina, where the man spent his final years.
And there are the photographs, showing the likeness of a man with kindly eyes and a long gray beard.
Off a scaffold cluttered with plastic buckets of paint and brushes, Clark picked up a small icon the church has of St. Nektarios copied from one of the photographs.
“It’s too meaty, too heavy, full of the here and now,” he said of the image. “It’s locked in time and it locks him in time. That’s not what an icon is about.”
Clark has been creating icons for 30 years. Some are smaller works that could hang in a home, but most are large murals in churches all over the United States (see tomclarkicons.com).
Born with artistic talent but lacking focus, Clark, a college dropout, found his calling when he and his wife, Sophia, visited Greece, and he looked through a shop window and saw a man painting an icon.
He found a way to combine his artistic gifts and the Orthodox faith he inherited from his Greek mother. His love of the culture remains. Clark smiles when church members come into the sanctuary and call to him on the scaffold by the Greek version of his name, Athanasios.
Studying a tradition almost as old as Christianity, he learned iconography is not about realism alone. It’s concerned with transfiguration, namely to exalt or glorify. “An icon draws you to a spiritual world,” he said.
Human figures in icons typically are flatter, more stylized. Also, prototypes are used: St. Paul always depicted as bald with a long beard and St. Peter as white-haired with a rounded beard.
Clark respects these forms, believing them divinely inspired. But he also fully employs his artistic skills, his hand and eye. “Every single stroke up there is mine,” he said.
He’s painted St. Nektarios before, a portrait in full vestments on the iconostasis. Clark said he likes to paint a saint with eyes looking out to the congregation to create a connection. But it was hard to do with St. Nektarios, who in photographs never looked at the camera.
“I had to adjust it,” he said.
The subject for the painting Clark will be working on for several more months is based on a prototype, a larger work commissioned for the Greek monastery where St. Nektarios lived.
Clark’s work will fill the upper portion of an apse, a rounded part of the wall to the right of the altar and will contain the church’s shrine to St. Nektarios. A reliquary containing relics of the saint will be moved to a marble table below the painting for veneration.
The painting is a dormition, an ancient form often used to depict the Virgin Mary sleeping in death before she ascends into heaven.
St. Nektarios is depicted lying on a bier. Arrayed behind him are mourners who recall his achievements as a writer, teacher, monk, priest and bishop. A trio of nuns tells of his founding a convent on Aegina. Beneath the larger painting will be five smaller scenes of the saint’s life, including miracles attributed to him.
Clark depicts St. Nektarios with his eyes closed, relieving him of his problem with photographs of the saint. Yet, he had a challenge – how to energize such a scene.
Bent over the elongated form of Nektarios is his close friend, St. Savvas, who, in fact, painted the first icon of him. Like his fellow saint, he has a halo. St. Savvas’ back is in an unnatural but prototypical curve and his hand rests on Nektarios. The figure seems to express fresh grief, as if he had just experienced his friend’s death, and tenderness at the same time.
Color makes the scene vivid and pulls the eye to St. Savvas. He wears a cloak of a startling shade of pink. And the color continues in the other figures – lime green, red, blue and gold, all under what seems to be the clear light of Greece.
Looking at the gathered throng he created, and feeling the depth of his faith, Clark said with evident emotion, “These are my brothers!”