Master Penworks of Tom Stefopoulos, Hellenic Artist of the Lovejoy Columns

Photo of artist Tom Stefopoulos by Joan Peacock, courtesy of Thomas Robinson

April 29 – July 30, 2017

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Location:
Oregon Historical Society
1200 SW Park Ave
Portland, Oregon 97205
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The Hellenic-American Cultural Center & Museum (HACCM) presents Master Penworks of Tom Stefopoulos, Hellenic Artist of the Lovejoy Columns. Mr. Stefopoulos was the artist who painted the artwork on the pillars supporting the Lovejoy ramp of the Broadway Bridge. The exhibit features photographs showing the drawings on the columns prior to the demolition. In addition the exhibit includes unique prints and originals of Mr. Stefopoulos’ early penworks from the 1930s through the 1960s. Ancient Greek motifs, ancient Greek philosophers, and United States political and military leaders are among the subjects depicted by the artist.

Athanasios (Tom) Efthimiou Stefopoulos was born in Greece on June 30, 1882. Stefopoulos studied seven years at the Greek National Art Institute in Athens, and in 1910 immigrated to the United States. He first lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, then moved to Duluth, Minnesota to work for a railroad. In 1920, he went to Seattle, eventually opening his own art studio. He taught classes in penmanship and built a thriving commercial art business, painting posters and decorating everything from letterheads to greeting cards and invitations. Stefopoulos taught himself practicing day after day with a language he scarcely knew. He was intrigued by the fancy scripts and flourishes in vogue at the time and used a rapid, rotary pattern as he designed his art. One of Stefopoulos’s specialties was decorating the vaults of safe doors found in many old buildings. He was a master of art nouveau lettering techniques, but by 1930 companies no longer wanted lettering styles in flowing lines and he soon found himself without work.

During World War II Stefopoulos moved to Vancouver, Washington to work in the shipyards. After the war, he joined the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad (SP&S) in Portland as a crossing watchman under the Lovejoy ramp of the Broadway Bridge. While waiting for trains, Stefopoulos began drawing on the tall, blank pillars under the bridge, earning him the title “The Artist of the Lovejoy Ramp.” The paintings measured ten feet in height and were a mix of Greek mythology, Biblical imagery, and Americana. Most of the paintings were a system of white lines against the dark grey concrete with a visionary quality executed with a calligrapher’s precision. Stefopoulos worked on the Lovejoy paintings until 1952 when the railroad transferred him to the NW 14th and Thurman crossing.

While Stefopoulos died on August 7, 1971, his story does not end here. In 1989 the murals served as a backdrop for Gus Van Sant’s movie Drugstore Cowboy. In 1998 the City of Portland decided to demolish the Lovejoy ramp as plans for a new ramp into the Pearl District were executed. In an attempt to preserve the columns, architects and other interested parties formed the “Friends of the Columns” committee. Attempts were made to restore the ten columns which stood 30 feet tall and weighed 27 tons, however efforts to raise the funds were unsuccessful. Artist and film producer Vanessa Renwick soon developed a documentary entitled Lovejoy which chronicled the turbulent years to restore and preserve the columns. With the attention the film brought and the hard work of the “Friends of the Columns” committee, developer John Carroll offered space for two columns at the Elizabeth Plaza on NW 10th Avenue between Everett and Flanders. The two columns were subsequently moved and protective exterior covers with photographic duplications of the actual painted surfaces were added. The remaining columns were placed in a storage yard at NW 14th Avenue and Savier Street. Weather and vandalism have taken a toll on these murals and little artwork remains today.

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