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Rocking orthodox

Parishes and punks collide in local monk's debut solo show



Father Luke Sheffer is a man of the West, born in Colorado Springs in 1973, and he's a man of the East, educated through classroom and travels across Massachusetts, Russia and Greece. He's pulled to the monastery, and also to the "speed and joy and humor" of punk music. As an artist, he feels comfortable drawing both Joey Ramone and Saint Tikhon; as an Eastern Orthodox monk, he doesn't feel totally comfortable anywhere. Yet.

For now, Sheffer has returned home, where he draws, paints and lives in the basement of the Dale House (a nonprofit that works with at-risk teens), which his parents own. Even as the opening of his first solo art show nears, his attention is divided.

"I've just been trying to figure out how to be a monk here," Sheffer says, sitting on a stool in his living room after hospitably pouring a round of thick, bitter Turkish coffee. He wears a blue robe and a knit cap. "Maybe I'll end up going to a monastery ... there's not a huge precedent, so I gotta kind of give it some years."

Father Anthony Karbo at Holy Theophany Orthodox Church concurs: "There's not much precedent, and yet [Luke's] not willing to give up monasticism, so he's created a bit of a challenge for himself. I would say his art reflects some of the angst of that challenge."

To Russia, with love

After graduating as a typical teen from Palmer High School in 1991, Sheffer went east to Amherst College, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation, where he majored in Russian studies, a longtime fascination.

"I think I was in fifth grade, and I was whining to my mom about how bored I was with some book and she got so tired of it, she went over to the shelf and pulled down Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment," Sheffer says wryly. "And it was probably just Dostoevsky [that sparked my interest]."

While at Amherst, Sheffer fell in with fellow student and noted realist painter Graydon Parrish, who was fresh off a stint at the New York Academy of Art.

"[It was] a small class, maybe six people, and I just went in the first day and there was this one drawing by this kid that was just incredible," Sheffer recalls. "After I saw that, I ran up to him and asked him if he'd teach me, because I was just floored by this drawing. It was like one of those epiphany moments.

"[Parrish] was the one that gave me everything. He taught me for next to nothing."

After graduating and learning everything Parrish had to teach on 19th-century French classicalism, Sheffer enrolled in the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. At the time, the dollar was strong in Russia, leaving life for a student full of opportunities.

"I was paying something like $1,000 a year for tuition ... I had a student pass, so I could go into the [State] Hermitage for free whenever," Sheffer recalls. "You could go to the symphony for 10 cents, get in and just find an empty seat ... So it was a real rich place."

Gimme shelter

Sheffer spent two years in St. Petersburg before returning to New York City. He sold two academic nudes and experienced small successes, but "it wasn't what [he] expected out of life," so back to Russia he went for one more year. Or so he thought.

A lifelong Presbyterian, Sheffer decided to join the Orthodox Church "as a kind of seal ... an act of love for this country and place." On the advice of his roommate, he did so at a rural monastery outside the city.

Then he attempted to leave, but he fell prey to a travel-killing holiday season. So Sheffer spent time reading and getting to know the monks. This time of "remarkable peace" led him to a realization.

"If you want to live in reality, there's so many burdens on you," he says. "I think the idea behind the monastic life is to relieve you of these burdens of family, job, trying to figure out what to do."

With that in his mind, Sheffer made his confession, was baptized and tonsured — a ritual cutting of hair — and became an Eastern Orthodox monk.

After two years, he traveled to Greece to avoid the exhausting "Soviet bureaucracy" and ended up at the Monastery of Simonos Petra on Mount Athos. This "Ivy League" monastery was caught off-guard by a "ripped and torn" Westerner, Sheffer says.

"It was just really unusual that they would let me stay. ... They had me do this drawing of the former abbot ... and it just blew them all away, and that was my meal ticket right there."

Though he spent much time cleaning and working in the refectory, Sheffer says he loved drawing just after pre-dawn service, when he'd head back to his cell, cup of tea in hand, the sound of chanting monks ringing in his ears.

"It was not your little 'Kumbaya' stuff; these were men giving glory to God, singing hard."

Which brings him back to the punks.

"I think the pictures of the punks are analogous to expressing the inner world of the monks," he says. "Like, this soul singing at night, illuminated by the spotlight, or [for the monks] this light of the Holy Spirit."

Homeward bound

He stayed for six years on Mount Athos before Sheffer's abbot, who knew Father Anthony at Holy Theophany, sent him home roughly two years ago. Sheffer has since experimented with pencil, chalk, charcoal and oil and delved deeper into his conflicting lives.

"It's a bit about trying to reconcile these two worlds ... And not saying that one is necessarily the good guys and the other are the bad guys, but to see how they reflect," Sheffer says. "[With the punks] you want to twist it and make it good, whereas sometimes with the monks or someone that's more angelic, you want to make them a little grittier.

"And some of the punks may be holier than some of the monks. The monks will always say they're the worst sinners of all, and that's why they have to lock themselves in monasteries."

Rubbish Gallery co-owner Lorelei Beckstrom says what first grabbed her about Sheffer was "his classical style and his classical training, and the fact he was able to bring that into something more modern, more applicable to our generation.

"You can see an inner glow in the monks he paints, but when he transforms that glow into Sid Vicious and they have that holy light, there's just something really special there."

Two worlds aside, Sheffer continues teaching at Bemis School of Art and just trying to find his place: "I live a pretty secular life. Going into Blockbuster and renting Saw, I don't really want to be in my cassock.

"You know, I'm a bad monk. I may crash and burn."

Then again, he says with a laugh, "Maybe I'll die a glorious death defending the church."

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