Texan Brewery, Russian Iconographer

On a recent trip to Texas, I encountered a beer which took me by surprise, not for the fact that it was a creative blend of hefeweissen yeast  and Amarillo hops (though that was delightful) but because of its name and label. The beer is called “ICON” and featured a two-tone icon of St. Arnold, considered the Patron Saint of brewers.

The label for St. Arnold Brewing Company’s Icon beer, this one being the green series, an “Amarillo Hefe”

This by itself was neat, if not perhaps a bit odd. The beer was great, and it cut the edge of the mid-June Texas heat. Upon posting a photo of the bottle on my personal facebook page, a discussion began, not only about the propriety of putting icons on bottles and the like, but also of the actual brewery that made this beer. Someone even suggested that the brewer had a very nice, venerable icon of St. Arnold on its walls. I found the website here, and proceeded to find an image of the icon.

Icon of St. Arnold at the entrance of St. Arnold Brewing Company. By the hand of Fr. Andrei Davydov.

Icon of St. Arnold at the entrance of St. Arnold Brewing Company. By the hand of Fr. Andrei Davydov.

I immediately recognized it as reminiscent in style to that of Fr. Andrei (Andrey) Davydov. I sent an email to the brewery, inquiring about the icon and it turns out that it isn’t just similar to, but actually the work of the renowned Russian master himself. Please read the story of the fresco below, as told to me by the brewery’s founder, Brock Wagner.

It is traditional for breweries in France and Belgium to have a statue, painting or icon of St. Arnold in order to bless the brewery and all of the beer made there.  We had sought a likeness of St. Arnold without any success.  Then we read an article in the New York Times (March 18, 2000) about Father Andrey Davydov.  He is a Russian Orthodox priest in Pskov, Russia.  This being the age of the web, we e-mailed him.

At first he sounded interested in our project.  Then he became a bit more elusive.  Unbeknownst to us, he was being deluged with e-mails by others that had read the article.  But we were persistent.  Still nothing.  We sent one last email to him, pleading our case, attempting to convince him we were worthy and that we would try to get publicity for his cause.  To our surprise, he was suddenly interested.  He had noticed in the last email that we were in Houston where his older sister lived.  He had not seen her in seven years.  He agreed to the icon.  As we discussed the project further, the idea of his visiting us (and his sister) and painting a fresco here began to take shape.  All the details were worked out.  We had to send a letter to the American consulate in St. Petersburg extending an invitation to him. We also had to accept financial responsibility if he stayed.  He had to convince the consulate that he wasn’t going to desert his family and church and remain in America.  Apparently that proved not to be difficult as after he presented his case, the consulate was telling him to stay in the U.S. longer.

The icon was completed in December 2000 and shipped over ahead of time, arriving at the brewery on December 26, 2000.  In January 2001, Fr. Andrey sent us a list of materials needed for the fresco.  These included year old slaked lime and marble dust – not your everyday items.  We called around, discussed slaked lime plaster with old time plasterers (lime is rarely used today in building) and finally found everything needed.  On February 1, 2001, Fr. Andrey and his son, Phillip, arrived in Houston after a 20 hour flight.  On the February 2, they told us perhaps they would like to paint the fresco at his sister’s house.  We didn’t like that idea and quickly went down to her house to delicately persuade him to our point of view, hoping to not make any cultural blunders.  The next day he came up to check out our brewery to see if it would be suitable.  We were brewing when he arrived and the sweet smell of malt filled the air.  He began to warm to us.  We showed him the malt, talked to him about our passion for beer.  We tasted our beers.  We were deemed worthy.  He would build the frame at his sister’s house but paint the fresco at the brewery.

Next was a trip to Home Depot.  They don’t have Home Depot’s in Pskov.  It was quickly titled the best store in the world.  We also discovered an odd trait of Fr. Andrey: he tastes everything.  Sand, lime, fertilizer all went into his mouth.  Compared to Russian pollution, perhaps these things weren’t so bad.  Andrey, Phillip and James returned from Home Depot with all the supplies.  The plan was set and everything was taken down to Elena’s house.  Andrey and Phillip worked on the project all day Thursday and Friday.  At 7:00 pm Friday, James and I went down to Clear Lake, picked up the frame, the supplies and the father and son team and headed to the brewery.

In painting a fresco, there is a 50 hour window from when you begin applying the plaster to when the painting is completed.  That window began at about 10:00 PM Friday night.  They worked late into the early morning until the first two layers of plaster were done.  Air mattresses were laid out on the floor of the office (although Fr. Andrey’s went flat in the middle of the night) and they went to sleep.  James and I went home.

The next morning at 9 am, the plaster was not yet as dry as Fr. Andrey wanted it.  He moved the frame out into the parking lot into the sun.  He went on a walk to reflect and visualize his work.  The first reporters of the day showed up.  The food writer from the Houston Press, George Alexander, also speaks Russian fluently and is a collector of icons.  He brought with him a reporter from the local Russian language newspaper.  She came up and began speaking to George in Russian.  Then she went in and began saying something to Fr. Andrey.  He broke into a shuffled walk, gesticulating on the way.  Something was wrong.  When she drove up, she parked next to the frame, actually brushing it with her tire.  Then she had gotten out of her car, taken six or seven steps on the wet plaster.  She had made her mark.  Fr. Andrey exploded, saying “it’s ruined!”.  Muttering, he went off for a walk.  Phillip began smoothing it out while I stared in disbelief at what had happened and realized that if her car was one inch to the left, the whole project would have been ruined.

The plaster was easier to repair than expected.  It was smoothed out and then the final layer of plaster was applied.  James got to help in this much to his pleasure.  Then people began to gather for the tour.  We posted signs saying, “Ssssshhhh, Artist at Work, No Questions.”  We had broached the subject of the tour a couple of times before, and Fr. Andrey was not sure what to think about working with an audience.  In the end, he agreed to it though.  It turned out to be our biggest tour ever with about 300 people.  They watched very quietly and politely, especially the children.  One door was opening and slamming shut every 15 seconds, which, after 15 minutes, was maddening Fr. Andrey.  That was solved.  As people used up their beer tokens, the noise level rose.  By 2:45, the “I am an artist.  I cannot work in these conditions!” point had been reached.  At 3:00, we did our best to herd everyone out.  Finally, peace in the brewery again.  I ran out for some barbecue for everyone.  I returned about the same time the Houston Chronicle photographer showed up.  Fr. Andrey was a bit touchy at first, but quickly mellowed.  Phillip now became the tortured artist-in-training.  With the translator being piqued, we had some funny exchanges.  These included, “How do you spell your name?”, “I can’t tell you while I paint!”

Finally the pictures were done and everything was set.  James and I went home and Fr. Andrey and Phillip painted until 5:00 AM.  I returned at about 10 AM the next morning just as they had gotten up.  The fresco was taking shape although there was still a lot of work to do.  They worked through the day uneventfully and in good spirits.  Early in the day they got beer to mix with their paints.  Later in the day more of it was being consumed.  I went home for a while and returned at about 8:30 PM that evening to take them home.  At that point the fresco would be done except for some touch-up work.  When I got to the brewery, George Alexander’s car plus another car were there.  I groaned.  At least it wasn’t the lady that had walked on the plaster.  I came in expecting to see Fr. Andrey being interviewed, but it was just the two artists working.  I could hear some noise from the bar.  There I found George along with a Russian artist, his girlfriend, the skeleton of a pickled fish and an empty bottle of vodka.  They were having a little party, enjoying lots of our beer.  The woman was especially fond of our beer, as she kept telling me.  The artist had recently painted a portrait of Barbara Bush and had now been commissioned to do a portrait of George H. W. Bush.  He had been an art forger in the Soviet Union.  I tolerated them for a few minutes and then booted them out, getting hugged and being told about our wonderful beer all the way.  Then we packed up Andrey and Phillip and headed back down to Clear Lake.

Monday morning James ferried them back up to the brewery where Andrey put on his priest’s robes and waited for the KTRK news crew to arrive.  They were supposed to be here at 10:00 to watch the gold leaf being applied but couldn’t make it until 12:00.  The glue for putting the gold leaf on was Fancy Lawnmower Beer.  In fact, in Russia gold leaf is sometimes called “beer leaf” because of this.  [That] evening, the news returned to observe as Andrey conducted a benediction of the fresco which, much to my alarm, included throwing holy water on the fresco.  These water marks are visible today.  With the benediction concluded, Father Andrey and Phillip headed back to Russia.

 

 

 

7 comments for “Texan Brewery, Russian Iconographer

  1. July 12, 2013 at 10:39 am

    Loved this story. Thanks for going to all the trouble to hunt down the details and relay them!

    • July 12, 2013 at 5:11 pm

      Oh, yes, that turned up to become a real event! And all just came out just by itself – we did not expect these NY Times correspondents at all, they were among our average guests, visiting church and maybe having some tea/coffe hour afterwards…

      And when in Brock’s letter we read “Houston” the things started to move :)

  2. Athanasia
    July 12, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    What a wonderful and amusing story. However, what most interests me is that you could look at the icon and immediately surmise the author! What about the icon told you who did it?

    • Scott Patrick O'Rourke
      July 12, 2013 at 11:02 pm

      Well, I just so happened to have spent a good amount of time looking at Fr. Andrei’s work which is posted on his Facebook page (linked in the story). Fr. Andrei’s use of light, almost pastel blue and green in the field, or more technically the “light”, behind the figure of the saint was the first hint. Also, Fr. Andrei seems to abstract shapes a bit more than most, which works wonderfully well in creating an icon which is not just a copy of something older, but still within a tradition.

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