Alright – so today we’ve got the honor of introducing you to Joni Zavitsanos. We think you’ll enjoy our conversation, we’ve shared it below.
Alright, Joni thanks for taking the time to share your stories and insights with us today. Can you talk to us about a project that’s meant a lot to you?
Growing up, I was exposed to my father’s great talent as an artist by sitting in his studio and watching him work. He would give me paper, pencils, ink, crayons and paint so I could work along side him. I think I could draw before I could speak or write, and it was truly a gift he gave me that I am ever grateful for. He was mainly a Byzantine Iconographer, creating religious work for churches around the world.
Thus, through his influence, I did artwork all throughout my life. I studied art through graduate school, earning my MFA. But the teacher who inspired me most was my father. He left this life nearly 6 years ago, and it seems everything I create is with him in mind. His words of wisdom to me were really one in the same: “Always make art that matters”, or “Make art for man’s edification.”
Every project I’ve worked on since his death has had its focus on making meaningful artwork that will keep my father’s memory alive and make him proud of me every day. I’ve had solo shows entitled “My Father’s Daughter: Byzantine Art in the Modern World” in both New York City and Houston, in order to honor his work through my own. Then, when the pandemic hit in March of 2020, I began to wonder what I should do that would be helpful to society. I became saddened at the many deaths of individuals who were alone and abandoned to hospital rooms without any family able to come. Then the funerals, or lack thereof, where only minimal attendance was allowed at best. I began a search for individuals in and around my city of Houston, Texas who had died of Covid-19. I got in touch with families and began placing their loved one’s photograph on an 8×8″ square canvas and placing their name and a gold leafed halo over their head. I collaged butterflies and other meaningful items around them, and began collecting these art pieces and grouping them together, hoping to host a show with them and, most importantly, have a memorial service for the families so they could properly grieve their loved one lost.
The project gained the attention of news media, and suddenly many were reaching out to me, hoping their loved one lost to Covid-19 could be part of the installation. The John P. McGovern Museum of Health and Medical Science contacted me and came to my studio to see the work. They asked if they could display my images from October through December of 2021. Thus, the dream became a reality and
LIVING ICONS: A Commemoration of the Victims of Houston’s Covid-19 Pandemic
was born. The Memorial Service was so memorable, with over 600 family members attending in funeral attire, ready to mourn the loss of their loved one in a proper way. I hosted everyone, brought in food and drink, had religious leaders from the community come to say prayers, had Mayor Sylvester Turner give words of comfort, brought in the Windsor United Methodist Choir sing gospel songs, and ended the evening with a butterfly release across the street at McGovern Park. It was a night to remember for all.
The LIVING ICONS memorial has been so well attended at the Health Museum that they have asked it be extended until December of 2022. This project, to date, has been the most meaningful to me. I currently search for a permanent space to house LIVING ICONS in the city of Houston.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers?
I have been creating art for so many years I do not remember ever not working on art projects. I was constantly in my father’s studio generating art along side him from even before I could write words. The visual arts were truly a part of my life from the beginning. My father showed me how to draw and paint, and also how to make wood block prints. I especially loved print making as an art form, and even the blocks I carved on became art pieces. Collage naturally sprang from this process, probably because my father’s early 1050s-1060s work focused on collage mixed media art. I’ve been enthralled with it for many years.
When I was in the Master’s program at University of Houston (and due to my father’s work as a Byzantine Iconographer), my work became centered on Byzantine imagery and color. Church art has always intrigued me, more so than museum art. So I began creating elongated, haloed figures with emotionless faces, and architectural structures that defied worldly proportion.
This was catalyst that eventually led to my transforming iconographic images into a modern setting and context. I began searching for a venue that may be interested in this rather odd type of work, and in 2019, Fordham’s Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art in New York featured my modern images alongside the ancient Greek sculptures, mosaics and vases. They asked that I host some lectures with the students about Byzantine Art and its influence on my work. They also hosted a wonderful exhibition entitled “Distant Relatives: Ancient Imagery of the Classical Pagan Past and the Modern Byzantine Icons of Joni Zavitsanos”.
After this exhibition and lecture series was over, I held some lectures and an exhibition in downtown Houston, Texas at MATCH Gallery in January/February 2020 (fortunately right before the lockdown). The exhibit was particularly dear to me as I was able to honor my father by placing his traditional Byzantine images side by side with my own modern interpretations. The show was entitled “My Father’s Daughter: Byzantine Art in the Modern World”.
Since that time, the lockdown provided me the opportunity to give back to my Houston community by hosting a memorial service and exhibition in October of 2021, entitled “LIVING ICONS: A Commemoration of the Victims of Houston’s Covid-19 Pandemic”. The John P. McGovern Museum of Health and Medical Science houses this exhibition to date, and the show runs through the end of 2022. I currently search for a permanent space to house this tribute in Houston.
In the Spring of 2023 my modern icons will be shown alongside my father’s work at Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania. I will also host some lectures on Byzantine Art at that time.
Is there a particular goal or mission driving your creative journey?
My father always instilled in me the idea that art should not be just for art’s sake. Art, rather, needs to be created for man’s edification. He said I should always strive to make meaningful art. Thus, everything I do centers around what may be helpful or edifying or inspiring for those around me. I love teaching, I love inspiring others with both artistic and spiritual goals. When we say we are human beings, we must understand that humans are divine beings created to honor our society, our families, and our world (and this includes our duty to the earth itself). So I try, as a human being on this earth with a talent in the arts, to use my creations for the betterment of all. Art can tend to be about ego and the self. I don’t separate myself from this statement. I have an ego, too, and I can tend to be self focused many times. But if I try to extend myself outward to others, to see how I can be of benefit to them, rather than how they can benefit me, good things always come about. I hope to continue in this path so that my art can be something beyond my own self and be of benefit to others, and that my art can be something my father of blessed memory can look down on from above and be proud of.
What do you find most rewarding about being a creative?
I am happiest when those who come to see my work and ask hard questions can leave with a perspective that perhaps they had not thought of before. I also love learning from the perspectives of others about my work and how it may influence people either positively or in some cases negatively. Art, after all, is subjective, and even non artists can come to the table with sound perspective. Having a dialogue that is brought about by a piece I’ve created is possibly the most rewarding aspect of creating for me.
Here is a photo below of montage of the various events that occurred during the memorial service and opening at the Health Museum. It includes (clockwise from top left):
1. The Windsor United Methodist Choir
2. Family members of Covid-19 victim Juan “Dawg” Ramon Castillo
3. Mary Reyes attends the memorial and her butterfly lovingly hovers by her side. The following April 2022 she sadly passed of Covid related complications.
4. Joni Zavitsanos and Karen Weimmer
5. Mayor Turner offers words of comfort
6. Another family comes to mourn their loved one lost to Covid-19
7. Butterfly release photo
8. Mayor Turner and his staff view the LIVING ICONS project and point out friends they lost
9. Fr. Lou Christopoulos introduces Faith leaders from around the city and they offer prayers for the victims
- Website: jonizavitsanos.com
- Instagram: Joni Zavitsanos
- Facebook: Joni Zavitsanos
- Linkedin: Joni Zavitsanos
- Other: Please see the blog page on my website for interviews and news stories regarding the various projects I’ve been involved in over the years.
Barry Rudick with Bayou Fine Arts for all images of artwork Diamantis Zavitsanos, portrait of artist in studio