An Acquaintance with Joni Zavitsanos, the distinguished artist of the Greek dispora of America, including a tribute to her art work.

Written By: Leta Koutsoxera

All of us, until the end of our lives, we carry the residues of our birth, the membranes and the shell egg of a primordial world. Hermanh Hesse

The Wedding of Cana
The Wedding of Cana

Joni Zavitsanos is an artist who comes from the Greek diaspora of America and who has offered much to art and culture… In this anniversary journal, it is our pleasure and honor to present the work of this fine artist that was born and lives in Houston, USA; this way contributing in revealing artists from the Greek diaspora that have excelled abroad and maybe strengthening the bond between artists of Greek origin with the home country. We are presenting their works in order for art to become a bridge that can unite all distances and bring us closer together – as these artworks are the agents and exponents of the Greek expatriate spirit and soul and their presence here allows for this spirit to return to us… We want to make this connection with the Greek expats real, and therefore we make this tribute to our dear Joni Zavitsanos, aiming to get us closer to the life and work of this top Hellenic artist…

Several years ago, in July’s – December’s 2015 issue, we had presented the artist Dina Tourva from the Greek diaspora of Australia. Back then, we had discussed again the dynamic presence of the Greeks abroad and the important role of Hellenism* that, by preserving the Greek tradition, language, and customs, maintains spiritual and emotional relationships with the homeland – It is Greece beyond  the boarders. It is the “Greece of the world” that transfers the Greek spirit to the globe, offering so much to science and the arts…It is Phoebe Stephanopoulou, the directress of the journal, that brought me in contact with Joni Zavitsanos and her art work in order for this tribute to come to fruition… I particularly liked Joni’s works… At first sight, I detected a dynamic and specificity in her art that touched me, and triggered me to talk about it, to approach it with interest and, above all, with love, as I always do with all artworks, in order to get, as much as possible, into their depth and essence.

After Joni Zavitsanos accepted the invitation, I came in contact with her through telephone and email and we talked about her work and her life… We talked about her ancestry, her husband, and her children, Anastasia, Socrates, Diamante and Irene, her father, the religious icons painter Diamantis Kassis, who was her first and most important teacher… Here’s a part of our conversation:

–  I said :

Dear Mrs. Joni Zavitsanos, I am glad to be in such a pleasant position to talk with you and discuss some things about your work and life, in order to present your work in the journal ‘nea skepsi’… You are an artist originating from the Greek diaspora of America, living and working in Houston. Talk to me about your ancestry, the ancestry of your parents, and tell me if you are visiting Greece some times.

I am a Greek-American, born in Houston, Texas of parents who both came from Greece (my father from Galaxidi and my mother from Mytilene). My father was an art teacher, and we did not have the means to travel to Greece when I was growing up, yet from my earliest memories I’ve always felt I was Greek first, and then American. The smells, tastes, sounds, and images in my home were always 100% Greek. When I got married, I was able to visit Greece for the first time with my husband, John, who is from Lefkada. It is difficult to express the wonderful feeling I had when I arrived. It was as though I had always been there and always known this place. I used to dream of Greece as a child, and I had a certain impression of how it was and how it made me feel. As soon as I stepped foot onto Greek soil, I knew this was the place I had dreamed as a young child, and I immediately fell in love with it and was proud to call Greece my true home. We go every summer with our children and have even bought a second home there. When I am not there, I still dream of it until I go back.

Do you believe that your ancestry has played an important role in your work?

My work is largely influenced by my father, Diamantis Cassis, who has an iconographer, any by Byzantine style art in general. Thus, my ancestry has definitely played a major role in my artwork.

What do you believe is the most important thing in life?

The most important thing in life is our relationship with God and mankind. Our love for one another is all that matters in this life.

How close are you to the American culture in relation with the Greek, or better which culture has affected you more?

I will always say that I am more Greek than American. I am proud to be both, but my Greek heritage is of greatest importance to me. It is the most influential culture known to mankind and has given more to the world than the world will ever acknowledge.

In your artwork you have been inspired and affected by Byzantine art, while you have developed your own style and technique. Would you like to talk about all this?

Ruler of the Cosmos
Ruler of the Cosmos

I have always been intrigued by Byzantine art. I grew up with it, watching my father work for hours in his studio at our home in Houston. I loved the thin, gaunt figures, the color schemes, the reversed perspective, and the haunting images of an otherworldly nature. Byzantine art is a perfect form of expression and it’s eternally relevant. Its beauty is quiet and understand, yet bold and expressive. It is unlike any other art form. To quote my father, “Byzantine religious paining is not art for art’s sake, but rather art for man’s exaltation.”

I always like to make a word game and the automatic coherences that they make… If you like it also, answer me with words or small sentences with whatever comes spontaneously in your mind for the relations between:

I told her: She responded:
Individual and art The way to express myself
Life and art Not always as pretty as you would like it to be
Society and art People like what is trendy, safe, and accepted by the majority
Religion and art Perfect combination
Spirit and art Each artist expresses this whether they realize it or not
Matter and art Sometimes an impossibility
Science and art Art is a science, and science is an art
Politics and art Whether we like it or not, politics is always present in all important works of art

Here, I’d like to note that Joni told me about her painting ‘Make love not war’ the following; “it is a direct reference to the social and political rhetoric in USA during 2017.”

What is the influence of technology on art?

I believe that art comes from the soul. There are many technological advancements that allow us, for instance, to create computer generated artwork and other such progressions, but in the end, art comes from the heart of the individual and can be expressed well whether one uses some great technology, or just a simple pencil and paper.

What is the influence of education on art?

Good education can definitely be a great influence on an artist and her work. I went through over 6 years of higher learning, and during that time I had both good and bad teachers. I learned a lot from all of them for various reasons. But the best education I received was through my father, who was, in my opinion, the greatest teacher. He know how to help a student advance with just a few encouraging words and infinite amount of patience and love. All my years of schooling paled in comparison to his teachings, and though he has left this life, I still feel his presence in the studio as I work today.

Closing here our conversation would you like to say a wish for the New Year and if you are preparing something new artistically?

I am currently pursuing an exhibition of my work where I will install my artworks alongside my father’s Byzantine style icons. I love the idea of having my father and his works, the greatest influence in my life and art, next to mine. I will call the show “My Father’s Daughter” and the space will have some architectural elements taken from Byzantine temples, some Byzantine music, perhaps a sense of incense, and other interesting aspects in order to show both and antique and a contemporary artistic form of expression in one place. This is my hope for the New Year on a personal level. On a collective level, my wish for the New Year is that we enter it with love and compassion for our fellow human beings, no matter what they may look like, how they may think, or who they may be. It’s a challenging task, but we should make the effort for a better world.

Dear Joni, I am glad that I talked with you and thank you for this interview… I really felt that you are not only a great artists, but also a great person…

I also thank you; it was an honor and pleasure for me…

The Good Shepherd
The Good Shepherd

Also, we talked about her artworks; the “Prayer of Creation,” the “Crucifixion,” and “Michael” – a painting that we used for the cover of the journal – for which she said: “Archangel Michael is a warrior owning a spiritual shield that bears the first letter of the name of Christ, a bold ‘X'”… She also said that: “The face of Archangel Michael in the painting is that face of a friend of my boys that is called Michael.”

We discussed about “Last Supper;” the first artwork in which she tried to depict antique Byzantine pictures through a more modern framework. In addition, we talked about “The Wedding of Cana,” “The Good Shepherd,” “Resurrection,” “Make Love Not War” and many other of her paintings…

By seeing all these artworks, in which Joni has painted, with her psyche, images from the life of her ‘own Christ,’ a song of Johnny Cash jumped into my mind – the song “Personal Jesus”…

In her artworks, Joni uses mixed techniques, collage, transparent layers of colors, words and letters, to depict an idea bearing aesthetic pulses and a rhythm of freedom… Only a free spirit can move forward to renewing Art; touching at past events, in art and life, with a fresh, revolutionary view – as art is a rollout of the historical or mythical memory and, at the same time, a way of liberation and overthrow.

Although Joni’s themes are based on Byzantine iconography, they have been shaped by a new perspective, a new visual language, a different perception of form and synthesis, resulting in innovative ways of expression… Visual forms that bear a diachronic identity; entities of the past, of the now, and the future, always coexist renewed, whether old or modern, real or imaginative – all solid within a visual monologue or dialogue.

Contemplating the Creation
Contemplating the Creation

In her compositions, she uses numerous techniques to show positions and contrasts of things within time and space. She invents various visual means to convey timeless messages and concepts, to play with materials and rhythms, leaving her aesthetic intelligence free to create her visual imagery… With a contemporary expressive style and an intention for outward and inward inquiry towards the past, the present, and the future, Joni is advancing and building her original visual world with her own terms and laws. These are imposed not only through the truth of everyday life and the painful reality, but also due to the dream and beauty. Everything is expressed as a unity, through visual memory and the recording of cultures and religions… Her figures are essentially tragic; All shapes, forms and colors are the codes that conceal subconscious mental states, biblical memories and nostalgia… This is an act that leads to self-awareness.

Joni is shaping her own visual panorama to realize her vision of life and art with her own means, in pure and truthful ways; she is approaching the complex through the simple, the infinite through the finite, the light through the darkness, and form and matter through the spirit… Let us remember here the ten pairs of opposites (Table of Opposites), which according to Pythagoras, were:

<<finite-infinite, one-many, male-female, right-left, odd-even, square-oblong,
straight-crooked, light-dark, good-evil, rest-motion>>.

The above pairs define, express and compose life and are involved in every work of art and poetry. All these couplings, fluctuations and divergences of the opposites shape life and art by fueling the human capacity for creation and self-realization; a capacity that is <<evident in its works, from the most humble constructions to the monumental works art’Sense, intellect, and aesthetics are the key elements that dominate art alongside the spirit that is preominant and actualizing in perpetuity through matter and the intangible of the form. Matter and form are the first constituent elements in the creation of each being, according to Aristotle, and so are in the creation each work of art; matter and form are art’s foundation elements and their relationship and coupling make and shape the aesthetic idea and the climate that can open the way to the beauty of the cosmic infinite, the revelation of the entlechy of everything, the the emergence of spiritual delight – the only perhaps indestructible substance contained everywhere.

Joni Zavitsanos shapes and recreates form and matter with her own contemporary view and reveals new perspectives of the world of ideas, things and dreams through her creative intelligence. The exterior landscape joins the inner landscape of her soul, composing a visual landscape that expresses her creative conception that is both earthy and celestial and induces combinations that are conceptual, symbolic, historical, mythical and religious. She interposes faces, things, seasons and events in their everyday life, but also in their perpetual, cosmic flow where the primordial being prevales… She is painting transformed, scared figures, carved in their face by merciless time, bearing the wrinkles of solitude, the weight of morality, and the fear of isolation; there are figures awaiting catharsis, surrounded by either blue, white, and colorful butterflies that express love and the freedom of the soul, or by trees and flower that express beauty where purity is in place…

Joni Zavitsanos travels through art, making stops in space and time, forward – backward… I would say that she stands in front of art with wonder, devoutness and inquiry, looking to express the DNA of its substance through her surrealist tendencies… How to neighbour a borderless art; how to visually talk about it religiosity, how to house its visions, how to build a personal home and dwell there so that the pure and primordial spirit of its existence can shine through?

We wish to dear Joni, the eminent of the Hellenic diaspora, to always keep creating with the same passion and love, to successfully realize the exhibition of her works alongside the works of her father, the religious icon painter Diamantis Kassis, and to come frequently in Greece with her family – something that she desires so much.

*Based on the latest estimates of the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad today, more than 5,000,000 citizens of Greek origin live outside the Greek borders, scattered in 140 countries of the world. We have a greater concentration of Greek-speaking population in the US (around 3,000,000), with Europe second (1,000,000) – including the countries of the former Soviet Union -, Australia (650,000 to 700,000), Canada (about 350,000), Asia-Africa (about 100,000) and Central and South America (about 60,000).