Father, Son, and Holy Oak

David Kern

BEHIND A HOUSE in South Minneapolis stands an ordinary garage. A curl of wood smoke hangs over it. A modest sign over the door, invisible to the street, reads, "Woodcarving." This is the workshop of Constantinos Papadakis, one of the last men to make his living from carving wood. From this unassuming workshop have emerged fantastic, ornately hand-carved altar screens on display in Orthodox churches around the country, countless smaller carvings, furnishings for both churches and homes, and all the contemporary carvings in the state Capitol.

Inside the shop it is warm and smells of fresh-cut wood. Two apprentices bend over their benches, which are covered with a spray of wood shavings and dozens of small chisel-shaped knives. The percussive tap of hammer and chisel competes with old crooners on a transistor. Hanging from the ceiling, leaning against the walls, and covering the shelves and worktables are scraps of carving: snaky, hand-polished Byzantine curlicues, flowery screens in the Cretan style, ornate Victorian flowers.

Papadakis, 62, a gnomelike man with a pointed beard and a mustache that curls into two buttons on either side, has been carving for 53 years. "I was a 9-year-old boy when I went on the island of Crete," he says. "I was with my grandfather when a famous sculptor and carver from Athens came for his vacation. I was in short pants sitting on his lap. I took a piece of chalk and I carved my grandfather and me." The sculptor told Papadakis's parents this boy must be a wood carver. He was a natural. "'Oh,' he said, 'that was something!' I became his shadow. I became his tail. He couldn't go no place without me to be asking him things. The only way he could get rid of me was to show me some things."

When he was old enough, Papadakis asked to be apprenticed to a carver. "At that time, when mother and father spoke, that was the law," he continues. "And they wanted me to go to school, and continue to be something higher for better money. 'Nope. I like to be woodcarver.' 'No you will not.' 'Oh, I will be.' I was stubborn. My mother said to me, 'Go. You do a woodcarver. You will have one meal a day, and a spank every day.'

"When I say spank," he rolls his eyes to the ceiling, "grab the stick and measure up and down your buttocks. She kept her word. I had one meal a day and every night when I got home I got a spank." He persevered, however, and eventually the spankings stopped and his skills improved.

Many of his carvings are commissioned by Greek Orthodox churches in various cities and towns across the United States. On one wall of his workshop, Papadakis has tacked a photograph of the largest altar screen in the country, which he built in 1970. It is 56 feet long and close to 20 feet tall. The picture is a dusty, poster-sized, black-and-white print, and it clearly doesn't do the carving justice. And yet it is beautiful. The altar screen is three-tiered, with a central arch and a dozen or so square panels stretching away on either side. Each panel contains an intricately carved screen in the Byzantine style.

"I worked from 6 o'clock in the morning to 1 o'clock in the morning Monday through Monday," he says. "I had a cabinetmaker work for me. I had a couple of apprentices. We started in November of 1970 and in 1971 on September 24, it was installed."

When an order comes into his shop, Papadakis begins by drawing a blueprint on thin, filmy paper. Papadakis may deviate from it here and there in the actual execution: adding, for example, an extra flower or decorative swirl on a carved screen. Next he buys his wood and glues it to the correct dimensions. Then he draws on the design in pencil. Almost all his woodworking, including the initial drawing, is done freehand, without measuring, tracing, or machine. An apprentice drills out each hole. Then, using an electric jigsaw, he cuts the rough shape of each hole, which itself is a time-consuming task.

Then the hand-carving begins. Using a hammer and one of some 30 or 40 small chisels set out on the bench, Papadakis trims away the wood, roughing out the basic shapes. Then he slowly executes the more detailed work. His two apprentices spend most of their time on the repetitive details: snake marks on the pillars, designs at the base of pillars, and the odd repair work that comes along. But sometimes he'll give them a more important piece of work, like one of the statuary figures that adorn the center of each panel on the altar screen. The finished product of all that work costs some $60 to $110 per square foot.

Papadakis likes to tell the story of how he came to Minnesota, on December 9, 1966, with his wife and three children, and $65 in his pocket, how he froze in his thin Grecian suit. "The politics in Greece were goofed up, and I wanted to get the hell out of there before it was too late. And also to give to my kids a better tomorrow." He eventually started up his own shop in the basement of a church, which was where he carved the giant altar screen pictured on his wall. "I worked hard," he says simply. "And my reputation spread, word of mouth. Right now, you can see my work in Canada, and everywhere in the United States."

These are not the best of times for wood-carvers. Before the Modernist architects with their aesthetic of unadorned glass, steel, and concrete, most buildings called for some level of decorative carving. But today, trim is stamped out by machine and most new construction favors cost controls over beauty.

Still, Papadakis finds enough work. Churches still appreciate beauty, and so do a handful of wealthy clients who like carved desks, wet bars, and authentically detailed woodwork. In fact, Papadakis and his apprentices are booked up with enough jobs to last them until this time next year.

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