Theodore Tsavalas: America’s First Greek Orthodox Iconographer

February 17, 2017

By Penelope Eleni (Gaitanis) Katsaras*

Of all my family old timers, I wish I knew my Great Grand Uncle Theodore Tsavalas the most. My mother, Elaine Gaitanis, who was Uncle Theodore’s great niece, describes him as larger than life. She says he was more than special, “He was like having Socrates for an uncle.” In fact, everyone who ever met him, never forgot him. I say this literally without exaggeration. Uncle Theodore made friends wherever he went. People were drawn to his charisma and passion.

About Theodore Tsavalas, his nephew Anthony Velonis (a successful WPA era artist) wrote in 1993, “Uncle Theodore had a beautiful baritone voice with the marvelous heroic lilt. He enlivened the folk-singing at the Greek family parties. He was full of European ingratiating charm and carried an air of authority. His younger brothers looked to him as a father figure in America. I use to think, ‘Oh if I could grow up to be like him!’ He was 6’4” and strikingly handsome in a sort of craggy way.”

Theodore Tsavalas came to America from Greece in 1912. While he planned to only stay a short while, he never left. He had a talent very much needed in early 20th century America among the newly arrived Greek immigrants- Theodore was a Greek Orthodox iconographer. In his long career, he painted most or all the Greek Orthodox churches that were built in North America in the early 20th century.

Greek Orthodox icons are the language of the church. Yes, there is the written language, but the Orthodox Church, unlike the protestant tradition, has a visual language, too. Hence, through the icon, the individual may come to the same spiritual understanding as they do through scripture. Moreover, unlike the Western Christian tradition, Eastern Orthodox religious art is not individualistic. The artist’s name is unimportant and icons not signed. Painting is in a symbolic tradition outside the ego of the individual artist or physical world. Fundamentally, the finished icon represents a link between the one who prays and the heavenly realm.

Therefore, it makes sense that the memory of Uncle Theodore is lost among his paintings that each Sunday are kissed and spiritually celebrated throughout North America. Yet in our age of technology and unlimited information, Theodore Tsavalas’ story should be preserved with the history of: 20th century American Art, Greek immigration, and the Greek Orthodox Church.

I had the idea of writing this article after seeing a post on Facebook. A comment came to my news feed by way of a lady I did not know. She was excited that her Greek Orthodox Church in Price, UT was celebrating its 100th anniversary last August 2016. She shared a commentary by the Eastern Utah Tourism and History Association about the turbulent history of the first Greeks to inhabit Utah. I responded to her and the History Association saying that I think my great grand uncle painted the Assumption Church in Price.

The church has historical significance being the oldest Greek Orthodox Church west of the Mississippi. It made sense that Uncle Theodore painted the church considering there were no other icon painters I knew of in the early 20th century America. Both my new Facebook friend and the History Association researched who the icon painter might be. They asked the church and came back empty handed.

Uncle Theodore had two daughters. His only living daughter Kay (Katherine) lived most of her life in Hawaii and Colorado. I, on the other hand, am from the East coast and have never visited either of those states. I met Kay once 25 years ago at my parents’ home in New Jersey. At that time, I was sure she mentioned there was a church in Utah with Uncle Theodore’s paintings. I asked my mother to contact her. However, neither her email nor phone reached her because, at 90 years old, she moved to assisted living. Long story short, we found Kay and she confirmed that Theodore had painted the church in Utah. I felt a pleasant pride knowing that Uncle Theodore’s paintings are there every Sunday for veneration and service.

My Uncle Theodore was born on September 25, 1884 or May 10, 1880. There are conflicting sources and we will never know the true date. He died when I was three years old in 1970 and I don’t personally remember him.

Theodore’s nephew Anthony Velonis wrote, “The ancestral Tsavalas house was situated half-way up a hill or mini-mountain. It looked down on the village of Geraka that had about 500 inhabitants. Geraka extended about 5 miles to the Aegean Sea. The harbor was more like a lake than a bay protected by encircling peninsulas and was completely invisible from the sea. For much of the year the land was quite barren except for olive, citrus and nut trees.

Vegetables, greens, and grasses grew in the late winter and early spring. Goats were the chief livestock. The house had only one large room with a sort of alcove/fireplace for cooking and heating. In the summer cooking was done outdoors. There was a well near the door of the house. It is not clear how the family managed with nine children.

The siblings were born over a 22-year span from 1876 to 1895. They were, starting with the oldest: Panagiotis (Peter), Sophia, Nicholas (father of Telly Savalas), Theodore, Satiros (Charlie), Ioani (John), Eleni (Helen), Christopher, and Demetrios (Jimmy).”

Uncle Theodore was inspired by his father who was also an icon painter. As a young boy, he would watch his father, Constantine Tsavalas, work in the family house.

Unfortunately school in the village was a miserable experience. Theodore was beaten for drawing pictures of the teacher. Years later, he would tell the story while singing “America the Beautiful.” He would say, “Teachers in America are so kind.”

Fortunately, by the age of 10, Theodore was able to travel all the way to Athens and join his big brother who studied at the University. Theodore got a job by day and attended school at night. In 1909, Theodore entered the Art Academy of Athens. According to an article published May 4, 1947 in The National Herald, Theodore stated, “It seems that there was always time in Athens to enjoy oneself…we had little money, but our spirits were fired with the desire to create and our hearts with songs of sentiment and joy.”

Upon arrival in 1912 in New York City, Theodore began studies at the Art Students League. Commissions came and a big one was for the Greek Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral in Manhattan. A studio was set up for him in the basement of the church. In the 1947 National Herald article, Theodore said, “‘I came here for six months’ he said laughing ‘and thirty five years have passed since then….In a way it was the reverend’s fault for he insisted they needed me here.’”

Theodore’s nephew Anthony Velonis reminisced, “Uncle Theodore was later recognized as an artist and was contracted to do the murals and icons for the Greek Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral on East 72nd Street in New York City. I remember, as a boy, being humbled and awed by the sheer power and drama of the huge murals: Moses descending from the mountain with the tablets, Jesus walking on water, Jesus and the money-lenders, the Flood (a la Gustave Dore), etc. as well as the long row of Byzantine bearded saints. The pendant golden oil lamps with the red glass gave a hushed and mysterious glow. The cathedral burned down after Uncle Theodore put in 17 years of work.”

My mother tells me that Theodore worked on the cathedral for 10 years, not 17. According to the Holy Trinity Cathedral website, the church on 72nd Street burned down in 1927.
Moreover, my mother recalls, “He said that it was his finest work and that he put his heart in it. When it burned down, he said that it was as though one of his children died. He didn’t have the heart to do any other churches in the same way after that; he painted for money from that time on. It was also tragic for him because his studio was in the church and everything was gone.”

Theodore’s daughter Kay adds, “The Cathedral was his life. It destroyed him. He thought they did it for the insurance.”
But I believe these comments have to be understood in the context of Theodore’s life. I mean, based on all other actions and accounts, he never really lost his zest for life or painting. Wherever a church needed to be painted in America, he was there ready and enthusiastic.

Kay remembers her father painting in the home and shipping to churches all over America. Her memories are of him singing religious chorales as he worked. She said, “He blessed the icons with his voice.”

The National Herald wrote, “These scenes from the Bible, portraits of saints, the Holy Trinity, angels and landscapes in oils (on canvas or wood), fresco, and scarfito (sic) (scenes carved through layers of colored cement) exist throughout the United States and Canada. Every state except Florida has known the towering presence of Theodore Tsavalas, who stands about six and a half feet; his huge frame and jovial thoughtful grey-haired demine carry a thunderous voice which while painting, on canvasses or church domes, is interpreting the demotic songs of Greece. These songs come second to his great love for Byzantine art and culture, of which he is an authority.”

Later in life, Theodore became partially blind. Yet, his vision, or lack of it, never prevented him from working.

The events surrounding his death are also dramatic. Theodore was in Hawaii visiting his daughter Kay. He heard a church needed to be painted in New York. His doctor said, “Zorba (he called him Zorba because he was so charismatic), you just had surgery for colon cancer. It is time for you to stay here and rest. Don’t go to New York.”

Theodore, of course, did not listen. He couldn’t sit around. Though he was an old man losing his sight, he jumped on an airplane straight for New York. There he made plans on how he would paint the church.

My mother tells me upon arriving in New York he visited our house in New Jersey. He asked my father, a civil engineer, to help him draw up plans of the church dome. My father made an architectural sketch for Theodore to paint upon. Theodore said it was hard to get a job because of his age and my father couldn’t believe he was still job hunting. He took my father’s sketch home to work on. Theodore Tsavalas died the next day in a subway station looking for a job, the next church to paint.

Next time you look at a church icon, reflect and worship in a spiritual manner, but also remember this story about the heart and passion of one icon painter. And think about the stream of beautiful painters who came before and after my Uncle Theodore.

I am thankful to my Great-Great Grandfather Constantine, to my Great Grand Uncle Theodore, and to my Great Uncle Anthony Velonis for their inspiration. The simple knowledge that these painters came before me, and their DNA sits somehow in mine, gives me the strength to continue my artistic path and joke about the crazy art gene that forced me to go to art school. And while the women of earlier eras were not encouraged to pursue an education, I know my Yiayias had all the same talent and great minds of their brothers. Their stories are for another article.

*Penelope Eleni (Gaitanis) Katsaras lives and maintains an artist studio in Astoria, NY. She is a mother of three children, a former professor of art, and former elementary school art teacher. She received a BA in history from Rutgers University, a BFA in ceramics from The New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, and an MFA in ceramics from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Moreover, she has studied ceramic art internationally in Mexico, South Korea, and Greece.


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