As long as there has been religion, there has been art to represent it. And just behind an unassuming storefront on Braddock Avenue, in Braddock, lies a sacred surprise, a trove of work fit for the finest cathedrals. Responsible for keeping up this tradition of liturgical decoration are two couples ... David and Mary Korns, and David and Suzann Miriello ... Pittsburghers all, who have been perfecting their craft for more than 25 years. Their work is featured locally at St. Patrick, in Canonsburg; St. John Chrysostom, in Greenfield; St. Joan of Arc, in Library; and St. Mary's Byzantine Church, in Johnstown. The artists agreed to a composite interview.
How did you meet?
We all worked for a local church decorator. Out of art school it was a good place to get a job. That company doesn't exist anymore. Because of all the ethnic churches in Pittsburgh, there used to be a fair number of businesses like that, but now the churches are all consolidating.
Do you have religious backgrounds?
We're all spiritual in our own way, but it makes it easier to keep distance and look at the work objectively. We do a lot of research, but a little bit of ourselves goes into each work we do.
What media do you use that are unique or unusual?
We always try to develop new ideas. We do enamel on copper, stained glass, kiln-formed glass, metal-work. We approach stained glass as if it were painting.
Do churches come to you with specific themes in mind?
Usually it's specific to the parish, like, a church might have a special devotion to a particular saint, like St. John the Baptist. Two paintings we're doing now feature all saints that have to do with the importance of the Eucharist.
You've included Mother Theresa of Calcutta holding a baby, which is a very contemporary image.
Her life was close to the Eucharist in her teachings. That's what the priest wanted to convey to the people. St. Clare is in the middle. She was St. Francis of Assisi's companion. On the left is St. Tarsicius; he hid the Host from a mob pursuing him and ended up being martyred.
Do you have any favorite saints to render?
We just consider general visual impact. St. George and St. Michael are good. We like John the Baptist because he's wild-looking, therefore fun to paint. In Byzantine work, there are very specific guidelines for icons: their coloration, poses and the symbols they're shown with. But even within the restrictions, there is an infinite variety of ways to paint them.
The colors in your work are so rich and sublime. Is that your palette, or is it something dictated by tradition?
We're known for our palette and that's why people come to us. We are influenced by the colorations used in early Christian art. Our churches, because of the colors we choose to envelop a person, they just give you a feeling from the second you walk in. We want to put people in a calm frame of mind.
Do you use live models for faces?
We make Mary [Korns] and [sculpture assistant] Anton pose a lot. There are bits and pieces of them in different paintings. We change their features to obscure them, like we'll put a beard on Mary! We also keep a magazine clip file for reference.
So Kate Moss could end up as the Virgin Mary?
We used a famous actor ... can't remember his name ... as the model for Jesus recently. Unfortunately, we don't have time to seek out many real people to model.
A lot of saints are represented as Caucasian, when they probably weren't. Do you have any churches that want you to paint darker-skinned icons?
We've always wanted to paint an African Christ, but we haven't gotten to yet. We did icons for a local Maronite church, Our Lady of Victory, which is a Lebanese Roman Catholic church. They asked us to paint Middle Eastern-looking faces.
Is art as important to the church now as it always was?
There was a really bleak period in the 1960s and '70s ... it's not modernism, but more like "bland-ism." During the '60s, presumptuous people came in and painted modern things in the church that nobody could relate to, that didn't make any sense liturgically or visually. There's a lot of bad church art, especially with objects. A church needs a tabernacle, for example, so they can get one out of a catalog, but it's usually mass-produced and tasteless. We treat art more consciously, with more effort towards quality and meaning.
What do you think about modern minimalist church décor, like the chapel designed by Tadao Ando in Japan that won the Pritzker Prize?
Sometimes that approach works, but what we see in everyday churches is that people who are using the church just don't relate to it. It's different if it's a monastery, where monks only need a blank white room. The everyday person seems to want a little more, something they can relate to that inspires spirituality.