After almost three years of planning, a creative dream was fulfilled for a handful of students interested in learning iconography with master iconographer and artist George Kordis in his native country of Greece.
For over seven years, Dr. George Kordis and I have partnered together to bring sacred arts training to students around the world, especially to American audiences where there is little to none of iconographic teaching in the United States. The unique Byzantine system that George Kordis teaches is sought after internationally as it opens up a new path of creativity for the contemporary iconographer and gives a solid foundation to grow a practice. In recent years, a resurgence of interest is building with iconography in general, and the next generation is seeking creative opportunities to make a difference in the culture through learning the artistic skills needed to make beautiful icons. Creating a unique 10-day summer school experience was exactly the type of immersion that we envisioned for students, and we’re grateful to have finally pulled it off.
After two years of pandemic-related postponements, we feel that this year’s inaugural summer program was a success and went even better than we had hoped for. With 28 students from all over the world — the U.S., Sweden, Mexico, Australia, Germany, Austria, Poland, Uruguay and Canada, the experience allowed students to be both in Athens at Kordis’s Eikonourgia teaching studio for three days for a drawing focus and also to experience a longer stay at the Orthodox Academy of Crete in Kolympari, in the Northern part of Crete, situated along the Aegean Sea for a week-long painting segment.
We had the blessing of a handful of seven talented recent college graduates (and one college Junior) from Magdalen College (New Hampshire, USA) in attendance who were granted special tuition and lodging grants from a generous private benefactor. This was a dream come true for these students who had studied only basic iconography with me during the academic year and had heard of the artistic benefits of studying with master iconographer George Kordis.
We began with an opening event at the Mets Art Center (https://www.metsartscentre.gallery), a beautiful art-deco building that Kordis lovingly restored and which is currently hosting various exhibitions and events. Students had a chance to see some of George Kordis’s permanent collection of icons, his personal studio as well as a temporary exhibition of some of his other recent work. It was a good opportunity to meet one another and hear a bit more about each other and share more details for our time together the few days in Athens as well as the week-long stay at the Orthodox Academy of Crete (https://www.oac.gr/en/).
The next day commenced the drawing portion of the program held in the beautifully designed and newly restored modern space of the Eikonourgia School where students were divided into their skill levels (beginners to advanced) and began to immerse in various drawing exercises. To conclude the first full day was a group trip to the renowned Byzantine Museum to see their icon collection.
The rest of the time in Athens was spent honing skills at Eikonourgia and sharing good food in casual small groups at local restaurants in the Pangrati, Plaka and Mets areas. The last full day included a trip to see a local church that George Kordis painted before getting ready for the ferry ride to Crete. George made a point to stress the importance of traveling by boat to the island. He was right — it was truly inspiring to sit under moonlight on the deck before sleep as we sped across the waters. Upon arrival early the next morning, a chartered bus was waiting to take us to the Orthodox Academy of Crete, an easy hour’s drive North of the Chania port.
The Orthodox Academy in Kolympari is truly an oasis of peace and the perfect place to make home for a week. The proximity to the sea and the beauty of the ancient Orthodox Gonia Monastery adjacent to the Academy contributed for part of it, but it is also nestled up against the mountains on the edge of town, with a campus that feels most welcoming and (as we soon found out), with some of the best cooking to be had on Crete. There wasn’t a meal that disappointed, with healthy and creative offerings to make anyone satisfied (their cookbook happily came home with me).
Each day began with a morning swim in the clear waters of the sea for some of us — an easy walk down from our lodging to the rocky cove beach from the OAC. It was a total bonus to the whole experience, which could be paired with a perfect sunrise with the right early timing.
For our daily workshops, students were split into two groups for the icon painting segment of the summer school, taking over two large conference spaces for our painting studio areas. The subject of Christ (beginner level) and Prophet Elijah in the Wilderness (advanced level) became the week-long icon projects. Step by step, our professor led us all through the techniques and each specific movement of creating these icons. The week’s creative learning included lively daily group discussions on various subjects as we watched George paint and show us new techniques — interesting topics of ephemeral art, good coffee, the best pigments, brushes, and lively and interesting talk of life in general. George would often also take used paper towels from wiping his brushes and transform them into various personages who emerged out of the dried colors. On our free day, he also set aside time to paint a large stone, liberating delicate faces he saw trapped inside the form… always a true artist.
Three of Kordis’s team of fellow iconographers who usually help paint his churches were also present — Maria, Nectarios, and Alki. They helped to provide additional support and extra eyes for helping students, well as engaging in good conversation and sharing their great sense of humor. Maria also gave a special presentation on making different grounds used in icon painting from applying gesso to various aspects of gilding icons.
Our meal times on the beautiful dining deck overlooking the ocean became a great place to extend conversations, sometimes going deep into the evenings. Watching the moon rise over the mountains — red on several occasions — was a high point enjoyed with a glass of Raki (a traditional Cretan drink).
We happened to be there on August 15th for the Feast of the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos (the Feast of the Annunciation). Because of this, we were able to partake of the vesper services at the neighboring ancient Gonia monastery which went deep into the early hours of the feast day, and throughout the following day. It was a memorable experience filled with candlelight, chanting and ancient icons. I went over at midnight thinking there would be less people, but there were plenty still coming and going at that late hour, an affirmation to the faith. The event was well attended by local Cretans, and made for an especially memorable celebration of the special event. I can still taste the blessed ceremonial bread in my mouth, scented with delicate orange — a special aromatic gift of friendship given when leaving the church that night. The scent of Jasmine was also lingering in the air.
Part of the Cretan stay included several scheduled afternoon trips to various ancient sites and monasteries (optional) as well as a trip to the famous Falasarna Beach. One evening we were bussed into Chania and had time to tour and explore the famous Chryssopigi Monastery after which we enjoyed some time to wander Chania’s old town and share a group dinner not far from the entrance to the famous lighthouse in the Chania harbor. The last night was a truly special feast with a “Cretan night” completed with traditional music and dancers, of which we were able to join hands and dance to celebrate this rare time shared.
We were all well taken care of in Crete while at the OAC. Being there provided the perfect balance of in-depth learning with George Kordis, exquisite food, new friendships formed, a beautiful seaside location and the perfect local sightseeing that gave us all a great grounding in flavor of Crete, the beauty of Greece and our shared love of iconography.
We’re already looking forward to next summer with the new summer school dates of August 5 to 16th, 2023. Our basic itinerary will be somewhat similar, with a few other add-ons such as a trip to a monastery and another church north of Athens that George painted for a day trip at the front end of our school, and a few other new options for excursions while in Crete. Summer 2023 will also have multiple skill levels from beginner, intermediate, and an advanced creative section.
You can learn more by going to the workshop section of our Writing the Light website, https://writingthelight.com/crete-greece-summer-school-2023/.
The summer school is a unique way to immerse and combine both learning iconography with George Kordis and an inspiring vacation in Greece. We already have a handful of students signed up as a carry over from last year, and we do urge anyone who is interested in joining for 2023 to not to delay in registration.
The summer school will gift you a most beautiful and transformative creative and spiritual journey.