Byzantine art has always been a part of Joni Zavitsanos’ life, essentially from the day she was born. Her late father, Diamantis John Cassis, was a Byzantine iconographer who created religious images for churches around the world. He worked as an art teacher at Galina Park Middle School and The Kinkaid School, for a total of 42 years after immigrating to the U.S. and settling in Houston in 1947. Her grandfather was also an artist, specializing in scenes from the family’s home of Galaxidi, Greece.
It’s perhaps unsurprising then that Zavitsanos, whose new exhibit “My Father’s Daughter: Byzantine Art in the Modern World” opens at MATCH this week, became an artist herself.
“While he taught and worked, I sat on the floor and drew on the blank sheets of paper he would give me. I was not allowed to have a coloring book,” Zavitsanos says of her father, who died in 2015. “Over time, as I watched him paint these Byzantine images, I became enamored with the elongated haloed figures, the reversed perspective, the gold leaf, and the emotionless expressions, and they naturally became part of the images I would later begin to create.”
Zavitsanos’ exhibit at MATCH chronicles more than 30 years of her father’s work side by side with her own.
“In this exhibit, my ‘Mystical Supper’ piece will be shown side-by-side with the one done by my father. My baptism piece will be alongside one by Dad’s in a more traditional form,” she says. “Viewers should look for the familiar elements infused in both our styles, and how these elements trace back to this ancient art form.”
A style that dates back to around the 4th century, Byzantine iconography primarily depicted biblical images, which, according to the National Gallery of Art in D.C., provided “a conduit from the worshipper to Christ, his mother Mary, or other saints.” The art is also characterized both by its use of gold-leaf and its abstract reality.
Zavitsanos says her father's work was created in the traditional and formal iconographic style, "which was the very first form of Christian art known to man." Her own mixed media work challenges the rules of traditional iconography by incorporating recognizable, modern-day faces and facial expressions that display relatable human emotions and imperfections.
“My work depicts the same events represented in the traditional icons, but in a modern day setting, showing how these miracles and saints would look today within the context of our fallen world,” she says.
When Zavitsanos first started working in the form, she didn’t notice any similarities between her work and her father’s. Over time, she says, she starting seeing something different.
“His art was always very meticulous and geometrically formal, while mine was wild and messy in comparison,” she says. “Yet somehow they were similar. Today, my work continues to bridge the gap between the ancient and the modern.”
“My Father’s Daughter: Byzantine Art in the Modern World,” has been in the making for the past six years.
“I started with the Last Supper as subject matter and began working to create it as though it were happening today,” she says. “I thought, ‘What if these miracles and scenes were current? How would that look?’ Dad would visit me as I worked on this large piece, and we would discuss it as I added and subtracted to it.”
Zavitsanos hopes exhibitgoers will come away with a sense of how her father influenced not only her work, but her life as well, from her Greek heritage to her faith. She sees these works as living embodiments of her faith in God, and says she strives to show that God is in all people.
“Education of faith through the talent that God has given me is my passion,” she says, “just as it was my father’s.”
Runs Jan 22 thru Feb 6. The MATCH, 3400 Main St. Admission is free. More info at matchhouston.org