John W. Perates

 

Perates brought a family tradition of fine craftsmanship with him to Portland, Maine, when he emigrated from Amphikleia, Greece, in 1912. Heir to five generations of artisanwoodcarvers, he used the skills taught to him by his grandfather to carve a massive altar and altar screen for Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Portland. He alsocarved and painted a series of icons for the church. Despite his grounding in tradition, however, his work was assertively individualistic. The church’s conservative parish council relegated his unconventional icons to storage in the basement of the building.According to family lore, Perates was a serious child, reading biblical and liturgical texts and visiting the small churches of Amphikleia and other villages near Delphito study their Byzantine icons and relief carving. This local but intensive exposure to Greek culture and his apprenticeship under his grandfather, who also taught him toread and write, were his only formal education. His skills developed early in his life; as an eight-year-old boy, he built himself a working tricycle. Between 1908 and1912, although still very young, he is supposed to have received commissions to make icons, but none of this work is thought to survive. He developed a lifelong practice of Bible study.After he settled in Portland, Perates obtained employment as a cabinetmaker with J.F.Crockett Company. When that company ceased operation in the 1930s, heestablished his own business—under the name J.H.Pratt—making reproductions of antique furniture, as well as repairing, finishing, and upholstering furniture. At aboutthe same time, the local Greek Orthodox church commissioned him to create a bishop’s throne for the anticipated visit of a church prelate; the resulting work was 14feet high, with a traditional reeded dome and carved grapevines and olive leaves as decorative elements. The throne, unlike his later work, was accepted by the churchofficials and installed. In 1938, perhaps as a result of the success of this endeavor and the satisfaction that it brought him, Perates began work on an elaborateoctagonal pulpit, a project that occupied his time for sixteen years. Carved of walnut and cherry, the pulpit was embellished with icons depicting the four Evangelistsand the early fathers of the Greek church.The artist’s masterwork is undoubtedly his monumental 16½-foot-high altar and altar screen, containing thirty-nine tiered relief panels in wood, each with anintricately carved and varnished icon, representations in relief and in the round of more than 200 angels, and six candlesticks, fashioned into the figures of angels.Among the woods represented in this impressive work are South American ironwood, walnut, and pumpkin pine; some of these woods were donated by interestedfriends, including a Roman Catholic priest. The artist was involved, almost obsessively, in the creation of this work over a period of many years.Although the altar is his masterwork, Perates’s individual icons are more widely known. Each is carved in relief and varnished; most are painted with rich and opulentcolors. In the tradition of Byzantine iconography, these saintly figures, which are presented with their customary attributes, are highly stylized, frontal, and direct, butthey share a power and a boldness that are less typical of conventional imagery. Impassive and otherworldly, they reflect their maker’s deep spirituality.Perates did not live long enough to see his lifework appreciated, although the local press showed interest in him from time to time. Within four years after his death,however, the Cincinnati Art Museum had organized a one-person exhibition devoted to his icons, an affirmation of their contribution to American culture.