It didn’t take me but a few seconds before I realized there was something special, other worldly, about Wayne Hajos.
Paint brush firmly in hand, clad in T-shirt and cutoffs, he radiates a penetrating, laser-sharp gaze as he regards the evolving image on the drywall before him.
If you should ever cross paths with this likable, humble soul, keep in mind: he’s not a painter. His artistic vision thrusts him solidly into the spiritually vertical realm of iconography, as he labors to create poignant and soaring images of Christ and other Bible characters. The kind of masterful artwork in which many Orthodox Christians – including me – find solace when crossing into the narthex.
“I’m a writer,” he says, naturally and lacking any pretense. That term is woven deeply into the tradition of the ancient craft, a pillar of Orthodox expression.
Peering up at the dome of St. Matthew Orthodox Church in Columbia, Md., his base of operation, Hajos, 69, peppered tidbits of insights into his job. “We don’t paint anything black, except to paint a hellish place or chaos in general,” he explained. And while the Greeks, he went on, were credited for composing the first icon, his artistic bent tends to lean more to Russian depictions, which take on a more human and compassionate look. In particular, images of Christ, he noted, are “softer, simpler and more transparent” than is the case with Byzantine designs. One of his most striking works is of St. Herman of Alaska, the first American saint in the Eastern Orthodoxy.
Regardless of what style drips from his mind and his brush, Hajos doesn’t merely jump into it without first doing his homework. The prep work, he emphasized, is extensive and painstaking, and its importance should not be marginalized.
“I don’t just read texts about it,” he said. His choice of colors, he added, is informed by emphasis on muted shades and an avoidance of shades such as purple, calling it “too electric.” By far, his favorite color is green. “It symbolizes rebirth.”
When Hajos was in high school in the late 1960s, he was thinking about charting a career course that didn’t necessarily include attending college. An aptitude test he took at Albert Einstein High, outside Washington, revealed he might earn his daily bread hanging wallpaper, working in sheet metal or painting neon signs. Hajos chose wallpapering, spending the next four decades working in that field.
At first blush, I didn’t think that hanging wallpaper and writing icons had much in common, beyond the opportunity to be creative on a slab of concrete. But listening to my friend, I came away with a new appreciation of how they share a common link. “Like iconography, wallpapering is working with color,” he said, with the gentle air of a first-year art student at the Pratt Institute in New York City. “I really like color, line, form, texture. A wallpapering job done right, he assured me, will transform the look and feel of a room in short order.
The available pathways to embark on in the creative subconscious are infinite, he said, energy dripping from each syllable.
However, art wasn’t something that suddenly took hold of his essence in high school. His passion for it dates to junior high, he said, when he began immersing into his curious mind as much information as he could about iconic painters like Monet and Degas. As it evolved, he began experimenting with sketching, painting, and sculpting.
Fast forward to 1995, the year he wrote his first icon. It was only a matter of time before he built his reputation to the point where he studied under Peter Pearson, a noted American icon painter and teacher. Pearson, a resident of western Pennsylvania, has written two books on the subject, “Brush With God,” and “Brush With God II.”
“Wayne is a true iconographer,” asserted Father Constantine White, the priest at St. Matthew. “His writing of icons is his ministry, a ministry that has the potential to positively affect the spiritual journey of thousands of people.”
Mark Bailey, a parishioner and longtime student of Hajos, declared that his friend “knows the faith. He knows the theological underpinnings not just as an artistic expression. He can communicate it.”
In subsequent years, Hajos, a lifelong Lutheran, recalled how he had reached a point where some of the doctrines of the denomination didn’t square with how he interpreted sections of the New Testament. “So I went on a quest to try to determine what the early Church always believed and taught. I began to read the early Church fathers.” That led him to his first visit to an Orthodox Church, “where I immediately felt at home.” One of the icons that activated his senses, he continued, was Jesus, his mother, and John the Baptist. “It made me feel part of this big family.” It was then that he decided to learn as much as he could about icons and their place in Eastern tradition. Shortly thereafter, he converted to Orthodoxy.
Hajos has conducted classes in his art and has honeycombed the entire narthex and sanctuary at St. Matthew with bright and bold images that touch the soul. And throughout the journey, he has managed to remain refreshingly genuine. “Before I start, I say my prayers,” he said, his tone quiet and reverent. “I ask that God would have mercy on me. I know it might sound funny, but I have to have the inner peace thing going. Just so there are no obstructions between me and God because I’m just a vessel. I dislike flattery…nonetheless, I offer what limited talents I have to God and trust that his will be done.”
During our entire time together, at the coffee hours following the Divine Liturgy, Hajos didn’t dwell on that aptitude test he took all those years ago that signaled a bright future in sheet metal and neon signs. Still, sensing the breadth and the depth of his love for Christ and the Church, I know without hesitation that he would have taken ownership of those mundane tasks and, of course, given them his very best efforts.
All to the glory of God.