We had the good fortune of connecting with Joni Zavitsanos and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Joni, what inspires you?
I am most inspired by the connections I make with people through my art. In the case of my latest project, I became quite passionate about learning more of the lives lost to COVID-19 in my city. From mid to late March, I kept hearing news reporters give statistics of the deaths in our area. They read and felt like a cold, impersonal scenario. I wondered who these people were that were dying alone, without family, without funeral, without a final send off from a hopeless virus that no one knew how to cure. So I began looking them up. I have spent literally thousands of hours on the internet and reading my local Houston Chronicle cover to cover in order to find these people and their families. Their stories are heart-breaking, but they are real, and this inspires me to want to honor their loved ones. I want to give them a proper memorial service and I want their families to find some kind of closure in that their loved ones are not forgotten. Their memories will be remembered through this tribute.
To date I have made plaques for over 300 victims. The search continues, and I am currently looking for a beautiful space to house the Covid Art Memorial for all to come and see the names, faces, and lives of all those in our Houston area who lost their lives during the pandemic.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’ve been making art from the very start, from before I could even speak. I loved sitting in my father’s studio at our home and drawing and painting beside him as he worked on his icons and paintings, and as he gave private lessons to students. Art came very naturally to me, perhaps because of him, but I come from a long line of artists. I have many of the paintings my Papou John (my grandfather) painted of landscape scenes from his home in Galaxidi, Greece, so perhaps art has been in my genes for generations. I received my BFA from the University of Texas, and then went on for my MFA at University of Houston with a concentration in printmaking. Dad showed me how to do woodblock printing and this style really resonated with me. But there are so many art forms I am drawn to, so I began collaging on found wood pieces (Dad was a skilled wood-worker and would fashion wooden canvases for me), and this style became more of my signature as the years went on. The images I created always had a very Byzantine feel in form, color, and imagery, but once dad passed away I became more overtly interested in Byzantine iconography and meaning. Conveying the spiritual in art has become a passion of mine, as I recreate images of the past in a more modern context. I love creating what would be the Baptism of Christ, the Mystical (Last) Supper, The Wedding at Cana, as it may look in today’s world. Struggling with the idea of the After Life, I wonder what is beyond? Where do we go? What does it look and feel like? My work is an expression of that wonder, and perhaps a way to work through those questions of life and delve into that deeper spiritual meaning of all creation.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
One space in Houston I’ve become quite fond of frequenting, perhaps because it reminds me of my studio space at U of H and my studio mates, is Hardy & Nance Studios which is an awesome space for seeing emerging artists in their studio spaces at work. The Silver Street and Winter Street Studios are also filled with beautiful artistic vibe. As far as dining out, my neighborhood spot is definitely Jonathan’s the Rub on Gaylord, which is BYOB if you want. If I’m with my girlfriends, Club No Minors (El Patio on Westheimer) has been our go to place for…centuries. The TexMex and margaritas lend themselves to stories about who that velvet painted nude is and what’s her story?! There is always a reserved space near the painting for someone named “Cyntia”, so who knows… Best turkey legs in town hands down goes to Turkey Leg Hut, but get there early. The line wraps around the block and its worth the wait. Flying Saucer Pie Company, if you want to take away some great dessert for visiting friends, is choice. A walk around Memorial Park is also a must for anyone visiting or living in our great city.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My inspiration in life is by far and away is my father of blessed memory, Diamantis John Cassis. Dad was a world renown Byzantine Iconographer, a devout Orthodox Christian, a Greek immigrant, and probably the smartest most well read person I’ve ever met. He wrote icons for Orthodox churches around the world. His main drive in life, besides being the most wonderful father a child could ask for, was making edifying art. He used to say that Modern Art, for the most part, was “art for art’s sake.” He felt that art should rather be for man’s edification, and thus he strived for this always in every piece he created. Our studios were very close, and we would constantly collaborate and discuss each other’s works. He wisely guided me and helped me make the best art I could. This week marks 5 years since his passing, and there is not a day that passes that I do not think of him, his words, his council, his gentle and strong soul. I’m ever grateful for him, and I strive to make him proud through every exhibition and project I embark on. I hope and pray I am doing so with this new Art Commemoration as well.
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