WHERE ANDY WARHOL NEVER TROD, DEMITRI LIUSSIS LEAVES A MASTERPIECE

An American painter in Medzilaborce

It is just after 5 p.m. on a summer Saturday as the steel-framed glass doors shut behind the day's last visitors to the Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art in the northeastern Slovak town of Medzilaborce. Disappointed that several of the museum's 17 Andy Warhol originals, including the famous Campbell's Soup I and II, are out of the country on tour, the tourists wander across the road to check out the town's other main attraction - the Orthodox Church.
The church is not especially old - it was built in 1949 - but it tops a hill over the town's main street and its white, layered walls and green onion dome radiate with Russian Renaissance pride. The sightseers scamper up the weedy hill to get a closer look, the setting sun chasing their long shadows up behind them.
At the top, they find that, unlike the Warhol museum, this place is still open. And it too houses vibrantly colored paintings.


American Demitri Liussis reflects on three years of work.
Rick Zedník

It is just after 5 p.m. on a summer Saturday as the steel-framed glass doors shut behind the day's last visitors to the Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art in the northeastern Slovak town of Medzilaborce. Disappointed that several of the museum's 17 Andy Warhol originals, including the famous Campbell's Soup I and II, are out of the country on tour, the tourists wander across the road to check out the town's other main attraction - the Orthodox Church.

The church is not especially old - it was built in 1949 - but it tops a hill over the town's main street and its white, layered walls and green onion dome radiate with Russian Renaissance pride. The sightseers scamper up the weedy hill to get a closer look, the setting sun chasing their long shadows up behind them.

At the top, they find that, unlike the Warhol museum, this place is still open. And it too houses vibrantly colored paintings. But these are all on the walls: icons from Orthodox annals, saints from the church's history. Deep blues, radiant yellows, and blazing reds stretch from the floor up all the way to the cupola, across every inch of wall and ceiling - almost. The back wall is not quite complete. There, the artist is working under the rays of a lamp, applying gold to an angel's wing. His apprentice is down a few paces, highlighting the details on another figure.

They banter back and forth, speaking a strange, broken language. Now it sounds like Slovak, albeit with a heavy eastern accent. Then it sounds Russian. But then the artist lapses into his mother tongue - New Yorkese.

The artist, Demitri Liussis, is American. He was raised in Brooklyn by Greek immigrant parents who attended an Orthodox church. Later in life, he picked up some Russian. In 1994, the diocese asked him if he would accept an invitation to restore paintings in an Orthodox church in eastern Slovakia. Hardly knowing where Slovakia was, let alone Medzilaborce, Liussis agreed to the mission, which he expected to last six months.


The Orthodox Church rises atop a hill in Medzilaborce.
Rick Zedník

But when Liussis arrived in this town of 7,000 in the heart of Slovak Ruthenia, he was in for shocks beyond the public signs written in Cyrillic. "The first time I brushed the wall, the paint all came off," he says of the half-century-old paintings he had come to restore. The decision was made to repaint the entire interior rather than attempt to save something that was already lost.

As he progressed on the project, Liussis, who now calls Florida home, encountered more surprises. "It gets too cold to paint in here during the winter," he says, wearing a sweater on this July evening. So Liussis and his wife split their time between Medzilaborce and Prešov, with Demitri painting in the summer and teaching at Šafárik University in the winter.

While describing it as enlightening on the whole, Liussis says his time in Medzilaborce hasn't been without melancholy. One of his apprentices died while the work was in progress. Out of respect, Liussis left that part of the wall as it was when the artist died, without the mentor's touch-ups.

Three years after he arrived, Liussis has finished. Although he was generous in showing curious passers-by the work-in-progress, Liussis has come down from the scaffolding and unveiled the masterpiece. Now, he says he is considering a request to paint the interior of a new Orthodox church in Svidník, 45 kilometers to the west of Medzilaborce.

Although he never lived in or even visited the land his parents left behind, Andy Warhol helped put Medzilaborce on the map. But Demitri Liussis is putting the local Orthodox church in the guidebooks. Those travelers who are intrepid enough to wind their way 110 kilometers northeast of Prešov, past wooden churches and horse-drawn carts, would serve themselves well to climb the weedy hill. The church is open to the public and the paintings are not going on tour.

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