Meet the Greek Orthodox wood carver chiseling sacred artifacts for a living

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The Orthodox Wood Carver

Konstantinos Papadakis carves sacred artifacts

MINNEAPOLIS — In a garage workspace behind his house, Konstantinos Papadakis chips, chisels and whittles sacred artifacts for Greek Orthodox churches around the United States and the world.

Papadakis, an 82-year-old with a white handlebar mustache, is wearing a Hawaiian-style paisley print shirt, horn-rimmed glasses and listening to Greek music that blares from computer speakers the day we met. His dog, Zeus, lounges around the shop and only responds to commands spoken in Greek. Papadakis is surrounded by workbenches full of mallets, drills, presses, rulers, levels, brushes, vices and, most important, gouges.

“Don’t call them chisels,” he says.

He says a complete wood carver set is 3,012 tools all with different sizes for various cuts and taps but few carvers have that many (he has more than 500). Papadakis has used the tools in this garage to create artifacts that grace churches from South Africa to Greece and every corner of the U.S. Orthodox Christian followers have doubled to 260 million people in the last century according to the Pew Research Center. That has meant ongoing expansions of Orthodox churches, which require artisans to make altarpieces and provide steady work for craftsmen like Papadakis. 

“I work far away from home,” Papadakis quips. “25 feet.”

He says he often works from 7 a.m. until supper at 6 p.m. before going back out to his workshop to carve for a few more hours until 10 p.m. He works on some ornate, large, Byzantine-style pieces for up to three years.

A work of meaning

For a man who has encountered hardship from his youth in Greece to dealing with the loss of his wife in 2012, Papadakis says the craft of carving is more than just a job or hobby. It relates to his own Orthodox Christian faith.

“I love my God,” he says in between taps on a gouge. “I have to do something best. If I give something, it needs to be as godly as God is. It has to be worthy.” He references his inspirations: Italy’s Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel; Spanish renaissance artists Doménikos Theotokópoulos (more commonly known as “El Greco” or “The Greek”) and his paintings of Biblical scenes on altarpieces.

Altar pieces and screens distinguish the nave, where people congregate, from the altar, or sanctuary. Since the 11th Century, places of Orthodox Christian worship have placed iconic structures behind and above the altar, adorning worship space with paintings, carvings or other artwork. Sculpture became a popular form in the Middle Ages, particularly in Germany. Painting became common in Northern Europe only in the 15th Century. A few famous altarpieces such as the Ghent Altarpiece (1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent) served as masterworks. The Ghent Altarpiece is a polyptych in 12 panels by Jan van Eyck, pieces of it stolen by many people over time including the Nazis, who kept it in a salt mine during most of World War II and its story highlighted in the 2014 film “The Monuments Men.”

For Orthodox churches, Papadakis explains the first icon on the right of an altarpiece must be Christ. Second to the right of Christ is John the Baptist; third is always Archangel Gabriel. On the left of the altarpiece you find Saint Mary (Mother of Jesus) followed by the icon of the particular church and then Saint Michael, the archangel. “Even Egyptians [Coptic Christians], who are a little bit different, still have the same order,” Papadakis says. The altarpieces often feature images of the birth of Christ, the Last Supper, the 12 apostles and the Annunciation. He often partners with painter and iconographer Panaiotis Mihaloupoulos on the altarpieces, the two craftsmen recommend each other.

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“It has to be worthy”

- Konstantinos Papadakis on his carving work

He says many people often wonder why peacocks are often featured in altar pieces. “It’s the symbol of pride. The bad pride. Selfishness,” he says. “We carve them because the house of God – church – is open to everyone. Everybody is welcome as is. You come to this house as you are.”

Orthodox churches hire craftsmen like Papadakis to create altarpiece carvings that enhance places of worship where priests baptize babies, bond marriages and give communion blessings. Orthodox churches also hire architects, iconographers who use wood, stone, marble or iron. Seamsters make clerical robes while other artists make chalices and patten, sometimes plated with precious metals and encrusted with jewels, for worship.

Papadakis is sometimes hired to carve for other denominations of Christianity as well. His web site shows a life size sculpture of Christ on the Cross that he carved from white oak for a Catholic church in Minneapolis. He’s carved gospel stands, chanter stands, icon stands, ceremonial tables, altar tables, iconostasions, bishops thrones and even a Kouvouklion (tomb of Christ) for Antiochian and Greek Orthodox Churches.

George Demacopoulos, a professor of theology and co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, said monks often served as iconographers and craftsmen over the years. And craftsmen in Orthodox countries such as Greece, Serbia and Russia pass down their craft to apprentices. Some Orthodox churches in America either import artifacts from Greece for their churches or hire someone from Greece to fly to the U.S. to complete artistic work for a church.

Papadakis acknowledges such competition but he challenges other wood carvers to guarantee their work the way he does. “The old masters of the wood carving are gone. They are dead,” he says. “The new ones… they try to make a fast buck. They do some things that are not correct. They do it cheap.”

Does Papadakis think he’s the last of the old masters?

He pauses before answering.

“I’m old enough. I asked some friends in Greece about some old master carver we knew. They said, ‘forget about it. They are gone,’ “ Papadakis says. “Thank God I am still alive.”

Demacopoulos doesn’t know of data that shows the exact growth of Orthodox churches in America but he says “it’s definitely expanding” as more Americans seem to be converting to Orthodox Christianity. He sees a “reawakening in Orthodox theology toward its Byzantine roots” and it is appealing to some Americans. Churches like Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Tulsa, Okla., paid Papadakis $140,000 in 2013 to carve and install a 15 by 40-foot traditional alter screen as part of a $300,000 renovation.

“Since the 1980s, there have been a revival of traditional motifs. It’s just indisputable,” Demacopoulos says. “When the orthodox first came to America… they were using an artistic style that replicated Roman Catholic styles. In the 1960s, there was a push by artists and art historians in Russia and Greece to return to the Byzantine style.”

“Byzantine iconography is not designed to be natural. It is designed to overemphasize and de-emphasize certain things,” Demacopoulos says. “For example, a mouth is always tiny. Ears are always large. It means to listen, don’t speak.”

As Orthodox churches boom in America, so do evangelical churches. But evangelical churches typically don’t have ornate artwork the way Catholic, Orthodox and some mainline protestant denominations celebrate stained glass windows, ornate carvings and iron work. During the renaissance, reformation and other historical epochs in Christianity, the world saw a flourishing of visual art, architecture, printing and craftsmanship related to the church. “The evangelical church does not do it,” Papadakis says. “I don’t know the exact reasons. Maybe the architects do not know the details” of historic Christianity?

A life of hard knocks and chips

Papadakis believes his own life has been hammered with sorrow and chipped with pain.

Born on the island of Crete, he says he was paralyzed with polio at age six and he says his aunts prayer helped him overcome the disease miraculously. One day he was shuffling around, unable to walk, he says, and shortly after he was “running like a wild goat.” He started apprenticing with master carver Theoponis Nomiko at age 12.

Papadakis said he also had leprosy on his face and that he was often teased.

“It’s important for people to know God exists. He does the miracles,” Papadakis says. “I went through hell. And I believe one thing – sometimes God makes me the guinea pig to show His power.”

What does he mean by that, beyond the leprosy and the polio? He says he almost had to find a new profession after suffering nerve damage in his hand.

While on board a ship with 30 other people, returning to their home, he says his cousin and him were both flirting with the same attractive Greek girl. His cousin pushed him overboard, causing Papadakis to fall and grab the exhaust mechanism of a hot engine, receiving a third-degree burn.

“Obviously, I scream and shout and everyone was quiet as they pushed the speed to go fast to the city to fix my hand,” he says. He said he couldn’t move his fingers well. His fingers and hands did heal. Papadakis said he doesn’t know if this was a miracle but he believes God was the head doctor in the situation.

He talks about a car accident that nearly took his life and how he drew and whittled altar designs from his hospital bed, recovering to full health.

Leaving Greece

Papadakis served in the Greek Army. He got married. And he left Greece in 1966 when its economy was lousy (as it was during the more recent financial crisis). He wanted to take his wife and children to a better life somewhere, anywhere – Brazil? Sweden? Argentina? South Africa? Australia?

“A guy came to Greece from Minneapolis. We talked a little bit and such. He said he was looking for someone to make a certain kind of boat,” Papadakis said. Papadakis moved his family to Minnesota and worked $1.43 per hour in that first job, not exactly working with wood carvings. He said he only spoke a “very important 13 words” of English when he arrived: bread, water, bathroom and a few others.

“I am a crazy man. I brought my wife and children. You know how much money I had in my pocket? Guess?”

“How much?”

“$63!” He exclaims. “Where the hell you going with $63 in your one hand? That’s all you got? I have my clothes. I have my hand. I have me. God will help me and I will do it. That’s what I believed.”

He says he received his social security card and saw his name was changed from Konstantinos Papadakis to “Gus Dakis.” Offended, he refiled to have his whole name listed on the social security and driver’s license. Eventually, Papadakis got back into wood carving and invested his life into his art. His first commission was a frame for St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis. Before long, he was carving pieces for more Orthodox churches and also for secular clients such as the Capitol Building in St. Paul, Minn. He’s a master of carving in Byzantine, Gothic and Greek folk styles.

He says Greek Orthodox churches continue to expand in the United States at a pace of about 10 per year, offering him steady work. His favorite project so far was the one in Charlotte.

In 2007, Papadakis got a call from members of St. Nektarios in Charlotte, N.C. They asked if he would like to carve the altar piece for the new church they are building. “It’s a huge, huge church,” he says. They wanted to use black walnut and mahogany, choice woods, like the kinds he dries and saves to carve. He flew there with blueprints and proposed carving the altar piece in the style of a famous church he say in Greece 52 years earlier. “In my prayer, I was not to die myself until I can carve one church like that,” he says.

“I got a little bit chills,” he said. “That is the fourth in the whole world” to be carved in this style. Papadakis says he nearly fainted when he got the job. It took him 2.5 years to carve the altarpiece that was 43 feet long and 19.5 feet tall.

He claims his carving style on that project and others is “Haralabia,” which is the name of his late wife. It’s his way to honor her and to deal with the loneliness of losing her in 2012. It’s a patient style, a meticulous style, a loving style of carving. “I wanted to do something to honor my wife,” he says. “I did a lot of tweaks to make it a new style.”

Teaching the art and craft of wood carving

Papadakis teaches classes at his workshop to 5 to 10 students at a time on Tuesday nights. He estimates he has taught up to 500 students over the years. He used to teach three days a week and offer classes at the YMCA in St. Paul, Minn., but he’s been scaling back in recent years.

What does he teach students like Cameron Quie, a wood-carving enthusiast (Cameron is my cousin, who introduced me to Papadakis)?

“Don’t rush. Do slow, and correct, the speed will come by itself. As you [are] doing it, again and again you do it, no problem.”

Were many or any of the students interested in carving scenes about the sacred matters of faith and Christianity?

“Absolutely not! I think I have only three students who were,” he said. My cousin, Cameron, is interested in that aspect. So is Papadakis’ primary colleague, a man named Paul Sirba who studied with Papadakis for 15 years and is now one of the best carvers in the U.S. and world. “He’s a very good person, a strong Catholic,” Papadakis says.

Many people pursue carving as a hobby, Papadakis says, a diversion from their daily life and an exercise in art and craft and beauty. “When you carve, it is the most relaxing thing you can have. When you carve, all other thoughts are gone. All the things are forgotten. You have to focus on this.”

Cameron Quie, (my cousin), studied with Papadakis every Tuesday evening between 2009 and 2012 in the shop behind his house with 3-4 other students. Papaakis “always warned me that if I ever quit wood carving he will put on his cowboy boots and kick my butt,” Quie said. “He also warned me, ‘wood carving is a pleasurable disease and there is no cure except to carve more.’ “

Quie said Papadakis sometimes yells “FREEZE!” in the studio and comes over to the student to correct a flawed technique. “He informed me on my first class that he doesn’t keep any band-aids in the shop. If you cut yourself, you can wrap it with your sock or something. This discouraged students from being careless.”

Quie now works as a machinist, creating tools and mechanical parts out of metal using complex machinery. He enjoys his work and the problems he gets to solve. While he wants to carve full time, he also wants to be content to make things he finds beautiful and not to feel pressure to sell carvings. Now that Cameron moved from the Twin Cities he continues to carve and to think of the lessons he learned from Papadakis.

“He loves wood carving, and wants to share it, and not see the tradition of it end. So he continues to carve, well into his 80s and continues to teach,” Quie says. “That way, there will be people who know how to do it the right way (his way), and this type of beauty will continue to be added to the world.”

The tactile v. automated future

Constantine Vrettos, an architect who designed the St. Nektarios church as well as a parishioner, recognizes the skill and craftsmanship involved in the carving process but predicts altarpieces “will probably shift to machine mass production because of cost.” He said early churches had icon screens that were smaller in stature than some modern churches like St. Nektarios.

We live in a world with algorithms feeding us songs, photos and food recipes, which seems to bear out Vrettos’ prediction. But Papadakis has a different answer when asked what he thinks about robots and the odds of robots making sacred carvings the way they rivet luxury automobiles together.

“They will never, never complete the hand. The hand is really the architect for everything,” Papadakis says. He points to different tools on his workbench, showing some that are hollow inside, some that have large or medium sizes. “We have a lot of those tools… but they do not have any depth. They have no heart. They have no heart! You have to have a heart to do it! Do you love your wife? You love her from your heart. Machine it has no heart. That’s the way I see it.”

Paul Glader is executive editor of ReligionUnplugged and is an associate professor of journalism at The King’s College in NYC. Find him on Twitter @PaulGlader.