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Spring 2006 Vol. IV, No. 3

A Journey from Geology to Iconography

Lena Kelekian’s (BS ’81) exceptional career has been a journey of faith coupled with perseverance and passion. This internationally acclaimed artist, iconographer, muralist, restorer, conservator, environmental designer, and geologist believes that prayer and food must provide equal sustenance for the fulfillment of the body.

It was an inspirational incident that drove her to iconography. “I knew about icons from my family. My mother’s prayers that helped me overcome an ordeal during the civil war turned me into a true believer,” says Kelekian.

With her scientific background, artistic talent, and faith, Kelekian decided that “nothing will stop her” from expressing her beliefs through iconography. “After I graduated from AUB in 1981…I chose to attend the University of London where I studied restoration and painting. Later I trained in many places all over Europe.”

“I was part of the team that restored the frescoes of the Duomo of Florence. I was the pigment expert on a team of ten working under the supervision of Giorgio Mathieni. I painted in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia, and in the Macedonian area where I restored frescoes at medieval churches.”

The distinctive feature of Kelekian’s iconography is her use of traditional Byzantine methods and natural pigments. As a geologist, Kelekian learned how to extract colors from minerals.
“I rediscovered 89 mineral-extracted colors, and discovered a few types of green and yellow.” In keeping with Byzantine methods, she paints her icons in an egg tempera (the egg being the biblical symbol of life and fertility) and embellishes the gold or silver backgrounds with precious and semi-precious stones and pearls.

Despite the technical knowledge that enabled her to restore and create religious art, Kelekian felt something was missing. “My faith needed to be corroborated with the proper theological knowledge. I decided to study theology.” She earned a Doctorate of Theological Studies from the Institut Supérieur pour la Formation Religieuse. “When I learned about the history of the church and the unwavering faith of the early believers despite the torments they underwent, my perception of religious art changed. Now, I paint the same religious figures knowing their life story...”

Kelekian and her sister Hilda, a calligrapher and arabesque designer, held their first exhibit in 1992 at the Salon des Artistes in Beirut. The ensuing media coverage led to requests to exhibit their work at galleries around the world.

Kelekian has won numerous medals and awards. “Italy gave me the title of ‘Lady’ for my achievements in the fields of arts and sciences.” She has been honored with more than 12 international awards including France’s La Toile d’Or, and appointed ordinary academician by the Accademia Internazionale Greci Marino, Italy. She has exhibited in nine countries. Eight museums around the world have purchased her artwork, as has Queen Sophia of Spain. In 2001, the sisters launched the Kelekian Art Gallery during New York’s International Art Expo, where they exhibited their work for two weeks. Currently, Kelekian’s art studio and laboratory are located in Zalka, Lebanon.

Representing Lebanon around the world was an honor, but it wasn’t enough. She wanted to help her country in a more tangible way. The opportunity came in 1997, when she participated in a contest to decorate the wall of a 500-meter long tunnel in Ashrafieh, Beirut. She won the contest with her design in the trencadis Antoni Gaudi mosaic style, depicting 500 trees of different dimensions ranging between three and 75 meters.

“Afterwards, I went in 1997 to Barcelona to learn about ceramics and mosaics…. because I had to get the X, Y, and the Z axes [three dimensional perspective] of things. One should aim at the deep roots of things and then try to blossom. What results is an authentic and long lasting product,” she says.

“Upon returning to Lebanon, I thought that something ought to be done to embellish the Corniche; the only way to do this is through ceramics and mosaics.” She embarked on the project of installing ceramic benches and a large mosaic chessboard. “I hope that these ceramic benches will attract millions of tourists to Ain Mreisseh, Beirut as they do in Barcelona,” says Kelekian. When asked about the concept behind the ongoing project on the Corniche, Kelekian says, “my idea was to narrate the myth of Zeus and Europa on the benches, thus showing the West that Phoenicians gave the name of Europa to Europe…The project is a gift from me to Beirut, and I hope it flourishes to be a landmark.”

Kelekian hopes to embellish many parts of Beirut. She has already designed and executed cartoons in a public garden in the Naba’a area that turned the place from a dump into an attractive spot for children from the area. “I try to use art in service of the underprivileged community. Also, to raise environmental awareness about the ailing Beirut River, I designed a façade of ceramics on its banks.”

When her sister delivered triplets in 2003, Kelekian decided to experiment in a different direction: children’s art and cartoons. “Last year, I was asked to furnish and paint the floors of the Clemenceau Medical Center–Johns Hopkins with whatever suits the ambience. For the pediatric section, I designed animal and insect cartoons. I hope to offer the St. Jude Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon (CCCL) some of those paintings.”

CCCL will not be her only contribution to AUB. Kelekian and her architect husband Hagop Silahian (BE ’85), hope to place ceramic benches and façades of their own design on the AUB campus.

There seems to be no end to Kelekian’s talent—or her interests. Her art will continue to celebrate her passion for her country and her faith for years to come.

The distinctive feature of Kelekian’s iconography is her use of traditional Byzantine methods and natural pigments. As a geologist, Kelekian learned how to extract colors from minerals. “I rediscovered 89 mineral-extracted colors, and discovered a few types of green and yellow.”

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