In a studio tucked away in a converted 1980s subdivision house flanked by dense Florida woods, Elias Damianakis paints icons that adorn churches half a world away.
Walk into the front foyer and the holy surround you: angels and saints, the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
For Damianakis, 42, they are more than just images — they are a form of prayer.
"It's an extension of prayer — the visualization of prayer and truth," he says. "I find comfort when I look at them."
The painter's works now hang in the Vatican, in the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey, in the private residential chapel belonging to the owners of the San Diego Chargers. Icons lining the walls of what was once the master bedroom in his studio will soon go to a church in Montgomery, Ala.
The Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in Safety Harbor also is filled with icons painted by Damianakis, who, a few years ago, was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
He is one of a handful of artists in the United States specializing in painting religious icons.
Painting icons, he explains, is a deeply felt experience "that brings me a sense of gratefulness that has nothing to do with being an artist."
By definition, a religious icon is typically a flat panel or painting often portraying the Virgin Mary, Jesus or various saints. Icons can also be mosaics, on metal or fabric or other materials.
Colors mean different things, Damianakis says.
Blue is the color of humanity; burgundy the color of divinity; green the color of earth.
Damianakis knows color deeply. Always a gifted artist, in the early 1980s he enrolled at the Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, with dreams of becoming a fashion illustrator.
But New York's fast-living fashion scene left him empty. He took a six-month trip to Greece and came back a changed man.
Seeing the beautiful religious mosaics in the rubble of a fourth century church destroyed during World War II defined his path.
He returned home to his family in Long Island and learned that one of the greatest icon painters in the world, a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church, lived 3 miles away. Damianakis became the priest's apprentice.
"I swept floors, cleaned water and brushes, prepared wood for his paintings, glued wood for canvases," he recalls. "I learned the color palette and how to fill in his colors for him. It took me a good number of years before I was ready to go out on my own."
Damianakis and his wife, Angela, decided to move to New Port Richey from New York in 1992. They had family ties in the area, and knew that life would be a lot cheaper for a young artist just starting out.
Elias and Angela, who live with their three children in Oakridge in Trinity, recently bought a house a few miles away where Elias could set up a separate studio.
"A year ago I decided that I could no longer keep a studio in the house," he says. "I've been very blessed with a lot of projects over the last few years and my work and books started taking over the house."
The three-bedroom, two-bath house is filled with easels and paint and his icons, some finished, some still awaiting detail from the artist's hand. When the studio is complete, it will house a library for his books as well as space in the garage for carpentry (his icons are often painted on wood).
"It will also serve as a guest house for when our relatives come into town," he says.
Over the years, Damianakis' recognition burgeoned as he began making more trips abroad to study art in Greece, Turkey, France, Yugoslavia and Italy. He read widely about Byzantine art in Russian and Greek. ("There wasn't a lot written in English at the time," he explains.)
His works, which trace their technique back to 11th century iconographers, can be found in churches all over the world, including Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Episcopal.
He paints his icons with a centuries-old concoction of egg yolk and pigment, and then embellishes them with 24-karat gold leaf, creating a halolike effect.
A scholar of art and religious history with more than 15,000 books in his collection, Damianakis explains that the golden glow in his paintings aren't actually halos as we know them: "They are really crowns of light emanating from within, meaning we all have the potential to be holy."
His knowledge of art and religion is so deep it can spark an hourlong conversation about God over biscotti and Diet Dr Pepper in the front sitting area of the studio.
Such conversations aren't unusual, but Damianakis, like the historic figures he paints, is a modest man.
"I'm not really a scholar," he demurs. "I've just learned by many years of reading and doing."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at [email protected]