Cathedral Sculptor Constantine L. Seferlis Dies

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005

Constantine L. Seferlis, 76, a sculptor and stone carver whose work graces Washington National Cathedral, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Capitol, Hillwood Museum and Gardens and other sites in the Washington area, died March 27 at Medlink Nursing Center in Washington. He had complications from Parkinson's disease.

He was a resident of Garrett Park, where he maintained a studio for many years.

Mr. Seferlis, whose work was featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary "The Stone Carvers" (1984), moved to the Washington area in 1958 to work as a carver at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Two years later, he began his work on the cathedral and over the next 18 years created more than 200 works for the building's exterior and interior, including flowers, sculptures, animals and other Gothic decorations. Among his favorites were the heads of Helen Keller and Pope John XXIII.

Friends and family members pointed out that in almost every photograph of Mr. Seferlis, he is wearing a devilish grin, and his work includes some of the more playful gargoyles, grotesques, mythical creatures and symbolic human forms that embellish the 83,000-square-foot cathedral.

They include a hippie, replete with torn sweater, to represent Vietnam War-era protesters, and a character who honors the profession of dentistry. Of the latter, he once said that a dentist approached him and said he'd like something as a memorial.

"I want a tooth with a cavity," the man said.

"A tooth with a cavity," Mr. Seferlis replied. "Let me think about it."

He quickly realized it would be difficult to carve a dentist working in a mouth, since teeth are so small; it might look like a doctor peering into a throat. "So I decided to exaggerate it -- a dentist working on a walrus's tusk."

He was a renowned animalier , a sculptor of animals. A bulldog, a poodle, a cat with a bird in its mouth, a praying mantis, a praying pig, a lobster, an octopus, an elephant, a donkey -- a veritable menagerie of animals -- gambol in stone throughout the cathedral, inside and out. His son noted that Mr. Seferlis was one of the first sculptors to carve his gargoyles and grotesques in such a way that they interact with the building.

His work on the cathedral reminded him of the glorious architecture he saw all around him during his childhood in Greece. "If you live in Athens, and beneath the archaeological museum, under the shadow of the Acropolis, there's no way you can't be serious," he once said.

Constantine Leonidas Seferlis was born in Sparta, Greece, and received a master of fine arts degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens.

Of his craft, he told The Washington Post in 1985, "It seems I was always preparing for it. When I was a boy, always I had a little knife and a piece of wood to carve."

He learned to play chess at age 12 and carved a set of hardwood chessmen in a month.

Postwar unemployment in Greece, a poor country even in the best of times, prompted him to seek his fortune elsewhere. A friend from Greece who had settled in the United States in the 1930s and taught at the private Horace Mann School in New York encouraged Mr. Seferlis to immigrate.

He came to New York in 1957 and enrolled at the Art Students League, which allowed him to make connections and find commissions.

He moved to Washington the next year. In addition to his work on the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, he worked on the restoration of the Capitol's East Front in 1959. He also was involved with the restoration of the Dupont Circle fountain and did relief carvings throughout the interior of the Washington Monument.

At the time of his death, he and his two sons, who learned the craft from their father, were overseeing restoration of the Smithsonian Castle's exterior stone work. It has been a 20-year project as they work to repair the damage done by the old building's decades-long cover of Virginia creeper, which reaches into mortar and wreaks damage on the stone. The work is expected to last another two decades.

He also taught sculpting and stone carving to students at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, Maryland Institute College of Art and Northern Virginia Community College. Although he was demanding, his teaching style was casual and personal. He encouraged his students to start not by carving angels but by observing nature -- the intricacies of a leaf, for example.

He was inducted into the National Sculpture Society in 1971 and the National Academy of Design in 1974. He also was a member of Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington.

His wife, Marion A. Seferlis, died in 1989.

Survivors include two sons, Leonidas Seferlis and Clift A. "Andy" Seferlis, both of Garrett Park.

The work of Constantine L. Seferlis was featured in the award-winning documentary "The Stone Carvers."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company