Ironically, in Washington, D.C., which may have more stone sculpture per square mile than any other city in the Western Hemisphere, Constantine Seferlis, a 50-year-old master sculptor and stone carver, is out of a job.
Since 1960 Seferlis has carved more than 80 of the 300 macabre stone figures—known as gargoyles and the smaller grotesques—that adorn the National Cathedral. It is the 14th-century-style Gothic monolith that dominates the capital’s northwest skyline.
Because of a budget crisis resulting from high interest costs on the Episcopal cathedral’s $11.5 million debt, Seferlis was laid off in January. Construction, under way since 1907, has been suspended indefinitely because of the chronic money problems.
The proud Greek-born Seferlis has not been reduced to living on his wife Marion’s salary as a secretary at St. Albans, the cathedral’s school for boys. After some uneasy months, he landed a short-term contract with the National Park Service to clean and restore the 189 graffiti-covered memorial stones inside the Washington Monument. After that he will carve quotations from James Madison on wood paneling in the new Library of Congress building. “Things are looking up,” Seferlis says—and yet he misses the work on the gargoyles. “During the Middle Ages,” he explains, “when people were uneducated and superstitious, the gargoyles were supposed to scare evil spirits away from the church.” (Actually, they are rain spouts to prevent water from accumulating on the roof.) Seferlis, using a mallet, chisel and air hammer, could turn out a gargoyle in five or six weeks. Many were subsidized by donors, and for $900 they could even pick the subject—an artist with a palette, a pet dog, the Republican elephant or Democratic donkey. When a dentist asked the sculptor for something evoking his profession, the imaginative Seferlis carved a likeness of the man working on a walrus tooth. The dentist was unamused and the gargoyle was never installed.
Seferlis, who grew up in the mountain country of Sparta, “always with a small knife in my pocket,” has been carving for as long as he can remember. World War II ended his boyhood when he was recruited by the Greek resistance. “They took advantage of our age to penetrate places in the mountains and to help ambush and sabotage the Nazi occupiers. It was fighting for survival. We had guns, all of us—I was 12 years old and had a .45 bigger than me.”
After the war, feeling “like a goat in the mountains,” Seferlis turned to the gentler demands of art. He studied sculpting in Athens and worked in a studio there. “You can’t force the stone,” he says. “It’s a matter of maturity in learning to handle the material. There are no shortcuts.”
In 1957 he emigrated to the U.S., where he first worked as a carver on the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, then on the east front of the Capitol and on the Corcoran Gallery before going to the cathedral.
In the evenings now Seferlis teaches a few students and works on private commissions in his studio behind the suburban Maryland home where he lives with Marion and their sons, Leonidas, 11, and Andreas, 8. The cathedral is still his first love. “I am sure it will be finished someday,” he shrugs, “but in the meantime, sculptors in church art, like me, may disappear.”