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Greek iconographer Vlasis Tsotsonis sketches and paints biblical scenes on a canvas. Upon completion, the canvas is glued onto the walls in the sanctuary photo by Renee Landuyt.

December 27, 2012
Since their September arrival from Greece, three iconographers have been working daily to restore the interior paintings of Assumption Greek Orthodox Church that were destroyed by a 2002 fire.

Iconographer Vlasis Tsotsonis, his assistant, Niko Gaitanidis, and technician, Ilia Broko, are working on Phase I of the church's restoration project. The second phase is repainting 16 prophets on the dome and is expected to take place in about 18 months.

Since the trio's arrival, the altar area and chapels were completed by December, prior to their departure for another job. The next phase includes repainting the church's dome and pendentives, as well as side arches and walls.

The smoke damage was so intense all the wood and gold leaf had be replaced, said Olga Cardasis, the church's office manager.

In an empty classroom, Tsotsonis first makes a small sketch of the biblically-inspired story, then a larger sketch in charcoal. The final step is to paint the scene on canvas. Gaitanidis and Broko transfer the five-meter by four-meter canvas to the sanctuary's walls. The canvas is glued to the walls, recreating what had been there prior to the fire, Tsotsonis said.

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As Cardasis translated, Tsotsonis said, "I can't work on the wall itself. I work on canvas and it will be glued onto the walls. Once on the walls, we will do more details."

Bright acrylic paints are used to depict various scenes. He is portraying 30 miracles and four scenes centering around the Virgin Mary.

"Every miracle has its own story," he said. "This is a large job for me... to show so many miracles."

"Tsotsonis depicts the beautification and the sanctification of the human person by the grace of God through paint and brush," said the Rev. Michael Varlamos. "The icons of the Lord, the Virgin Mary, saints and angelic hosts beautify the orthodox church in order to remind us of their presence in the world. They also encourage us to imitate them that we, too, may realize our God-given call to holiness."

This is the second time the iconographer has come to the St. Clair Shores bordering Grosse Pointe Woods and nine years since he was first contacted to begin the project.

He said he was committed to a project is Jerusalem and unable to fit Assumption's project in his schedule until recently.

Tsotsonis, the son of farmers, studied fine arts in Athens, Greece, learning the art of hagiography (biography of saints), including Byzantine painting and mosaic. He has worked all over the world, including Berlin, Jerusalem, Amman, Jordan, the monastery in Meteora, Greece, Germany and the United States.

He said he knew as a young child he would be depicting Christ through the arts.

"At 7 years old I was drawing Christ and God," he said. "I knew I was gifted. I feel the love with the iconography. I knew that was my gift. I went to school in Athens and to Venice to the university."

Tsotsonis works year round on his creations and said, "I work in the most beautiful places in the world. I don't need to take a vacation."

Now 61, Tsotsonis said he will keep painting, though once in a while his hands hurt. "I've been blessed to keep on with my work."

When one scene is complete, he begins another. "That keeps me going," Tsotsonis said.

And will bring him back to Assumption.

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