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Eikona Plain Dealer Feature

Two 9-foot angels peer over the broad shoulders of Nick Loya – a brawny Slavic craftsman of Carpatho-Rusyn extraction – while he mixes stains for a Greek Orthodox icon screen at Eikona Studios in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood.

At 6 feet 7 inches and 250 pounds, Loya looks like a Byzantine Paul Bunyan with curly black hair and a graying beard.

He specializes in crafting wood for liturgical furnishings, building icon screens for Byzantine Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and restoring massive columns and other architectural elements at Eikona, which he co-founded with iconographer Chistine Uveges in 1981.

Although 75 percent of Eikona's work is in Greater Cleveland, they've also renovated Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox churches in Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, and St. Petersburg, Tampa and Orlando, Fla.

"We work in a triangle from Illinois to the East Coast to Florida," says Uveges. In Greater Cleveland alone, Eikona has completed restorations on 58 churches.

Uveges, the daughter of a religious painter, is Eikona's chief iconographer. But like medieval icon painters, such as the great Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev, she doesn't sign her work.

"We have a saying," she says. "Leave your ego at the door. We work as a team here, a mind meld."

When discussing an extraordinary, almost radiant icon she just completed, she brushes aside compliments. "We all work together on every project," she says.

Then she points out, in general terms, the contributions, she changes the subject. Eikona settled in Tremont in 1988 because "there's a colony of artists here with whom to collaborate," Uveges says, "We try to hire area artists and architects." Tremont has the ancillary attraction of having more churches per square foot than almost any other district in Cleveland.

"We also work with two companies in [ nothern Italy ] near Carrara where Michelangelo quarried his marble," she adds.

With their multidisciplinary crew, Eikona Studios gives saints face-lifts, repairs crumbling angels, erects columns, reconstructs pediments, builds baptismal fonts, paints icons and guts and restores entire churches.

 

Last summer, Eikona created an iconic "sleeping Mary," or Dormition shroud, for the National Shrine in Washington, D.C.

"Metropolitan Stephan Soroka [ head of the Ukranian Catholic Church in the United States ] wanted to present a gift to the Roman Catholic National Shrine," explains Loya, "so he contacted us to create the Dormition shroud.

"The National Shrine had arranged to concelebrate the Feast of the Assumption/Dormition with the Ukrainian Catholic Church in compliance with Pope John Paul II's edict that 'the church breathes with the two lungs of the Eastern and Western traditions.' "

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Mary's body is "assumed into heaven," which is celebrated as the Assumption. In the Eastern tradition, she falls asleep, which is called the Dormition. Images of the Dormition traditionally depict the deceased Virgin as sleeping, while above her in heaven, the mature Jesus cradles the infant Mary in his arms.

The addition of this traditional Eastern icon, despite its alternative version of Mary's death and ascent to heaven, to the National Shrine of Roman Catholicism reflects the late pope's ecumenical vision of "building unity in diversity" and "overcoming every temptation to division and disagreement."

"They do intend on using it every year during the feast," Loya says. "But we are not sure if it will be on permanent display."

Don't look for originality in this magnificent shroud. In the Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox faiths. It's not the artist's imagination that determines what Mary or Jesus look like, as in Raphael's Madonnas or Michelangelo's Pieta, but tradition, Iconographers adhere to a strict set of do's and don'ts.

The features and symbolic, "not realistic in an earthly sense," says Uveges. They represent the transfigured or heavenly features of a holy person.

"For example, there's no external light source, " as in traditional Western art. "The light source comes from the icon itself, so you don't see stereotypic shadows in an icon and no white-dot reflections in the eyes."

The figures in icons always dress the same, too, down to the codified folds in their cloaks.

"Red signifies divinity," says Loya. "So Christ has red closest to his body, and blue, which symbolizes humanity, wrapped around him. With Mary, it's the opposite. She is human first, so the blue is closest to her body. But she's wrapped in divinity – red. Whenever you paint Mary or Jesus, you have to maintain those colors."

Three of Eikona's most impressive Cleveland-area restorations are at St. Stephen's Byzantine Catholic Church in Euclid, St John Neponmucene in Slavic Village and St. John Cantius in Tremont.

The 28-foot high, 45-foot-wide icon screen at St. Stephen's began as a napkin drawing at a Tremont restaurant.

"It's a full five-tier iconostasis [icon screen], with 43 painted icons," says Uveges. "We designed the whole interior on a napkin at Sokolowski's University Inn. We often make a first sketch of a project on a napkin or a place mat when we're at a restaurant."

St. Stephen's was Eikona's first large commission. It enabled Uveges and Loya to focus on restoration fulltime beginning in 1988. Until then, it was a do-it-when-you-can vocation. (There will be an open house at the studio, 2180 West 11th St., as part of the Greek festival in Tremont over the Memorial Day weekend.)

 

At St. John Cantius, they redesigned and restored the wall-and-ceiling mural behind the altar. Originally, the mural saints stood in a rigid row like stiff soldiers against a blase yellow background.

"The Holy Spirit in the tondo looked like a deck," recalls Loya, grinning. Now the saints ascend toward heaven on puffs of cloud in a vibrant blue sky, and a graceful white dove hovers over Mary in the tondo, or round painting, above the saints.

"We stove to create a feeling of being uplifted, of a continuous rising movement from the altar to the tondo of Mary being crowned in heaven," says Uveges. "On Earth as it is in heaven."

Theology always drives design at Eikona.

Upon completion, an eldery parishioner told Uveges, "It feels like we're in heaven."

St. John Nepomucene, which was built in 1917 and is the second-oldest Czech church in Cleveland, was restored by Eikona in 2003 at a cost of $600,000.

"It was our first major restoration," says Father Robert Jassny. "We had a restoration committee of volunteers from the church who made decisions in collaboration with Nick and Christine. The goal was to restore the church and to enhance its beauty.

"I have approximately 60 funerals a year," Father Jasany ads, "and I have people come from all over the diocese and different parts of the country. Everybody who looks at the restoration thinks it's wonderful."