An assemblage of well-dressed Greek-Americans and a couple of neighborhood homeless men huddled beneath the awning of the concrete Greek temple on the southeast corner of Halsted and Van Buren, dodging raindrops and awaiting the arrival of a small delegation of minor Greek dignitaries. They stood along with 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett, passing soggy cigarettes beside a gold-satin-wrapped object on a pedestal.
The group had gathered on this inauspicious day, June 14, for the unveiling of a three-foot-high plaster model of Chicago sculptor Anastasios (or Tassos, or just Andy) Papadopoulos's current project, a colossal head of Alexander the Great, which Papadopoulos hopes to carve into an 1,800-foot Greek mountain.
Around 3:20 a dark sedan pulled up, discharging the mayor of a small town in Greece and a sidekick.
As the slightly disheveled delegation clambered up the temple steps, several of the deeper-pocketed members of the city's Greek community, which recently gave Papadopoulos a $10,000 check for the project, began taking turns thanking the gathering and offering their support.
"Ladies and gentleman," said Tom Papadopoulos, a businessman and the sculptor's brother, "we are here today to honor the start of a monumental project. The idea to carve a monument of Alexander the Great on a mountain in Greece. The idea was born and nurtured right here in Chicago by artist and sculptor Tassos Papadopoulos. It took five years and a lot of hard work, but with the support of a lot of people...this idea is about to become a reality."
Papadopoulos's only other public sculpture, a life-size bronze Athena modeled on a statue from the Acropolis, which Papadopoulos, with the financial support of his brother, donated to Greektown in 1995, loomed overhead, perched atop a 25-foot column.
Andy Papadopoulos is a longhaired, chain-smoking two-cell-phone slinger in his 40s. "The idea--it wasn't my idea," he says. "It was an original idea from the Greeks. It was something they had mastered many, many years ago."
Papadopoulos, who studied at the School of the Art Institute and, till the Alexander project came along, made a living as an interior designer, is referring to plans the ancient ruler had for carving a monumental figure of himself into the mountain of Athos. Alexander would have held a city of 10,000 people in his right hand; from his left a river would have run down the mountain into the Aegean Sea.
Compared to Alexander's vision, Papadopoulos's is downright modest. But at 255 feet, the head would be one of the largest monuments in the world, more than four times the height of those carved into Mount Rushmore. Just the nose, "since Greeks have big noses," would be almost 70 feet long.
Papadopoulos began knocking on doors five years ago. At first, he says, the Greek government was "iffy" about the idea--"People think you're crazy. I mean, it's far-fetched, you know"--but the Greek expatriate organization Hellenes Abroad helped arrange a meeting with the minister of Greek Macedonia, who liked the idea. The minister set a few conditions--the mountain must be free of archaeological ruins, it must be easily accessible to tourists--and gave Papadopoulos permission to proceed.
Two days later Papadopoulos and a group of geologists found a marble mountain near the village of Agios Georgios while driving not far from the border of Macedonia, where Alexander was born.
If he manages to pull it off, the project should cost around $10 million. He intends to use water-jet carving tools and the labor, primarily, of volunteers. He hopes to break ground in December, have the basic shape etched out in time for the 2004 Olympics, in Athens, and be finished by 2012.
Papadopoulos won't say what's driven him to take on this task except that he looks forward to having a steady job and that he wants to "enlighten people about Alexander's contributions to humanity."
"The joke," says Papadopoulos's partner on the project, architect Karl Geckler, "is that it's actually a carving of Andy. It kind of looks like Andy."
"Every artist puts himself in there, too," Papadopoulos replies.
Papadopoulos has spent a lot of time at his mountain, watching the light fall, imagining how his sculpture will look at different times of day and in different seasons. "The blue sky is the canvas. The mountain will be the painting," Papadopoulos says. "And the nice thing is that we're never going to run out of mountain--600 meters is a lot of mountain. We've actually done studies: we can do it two or three times before we can't do it anymore. You can cut off a nose accidentally and start over and keep going."
Why Alexander? Papadopoulos defends his choice, imagining the challenge has something to do with Alexander's reputed homosexuality. "There's a lot of men in this world that we find out were as great as they were, and then we find out they had a little preference, sexuality differences. That doesn't make a person--"
"What you are saying," Geckler jokes, "is that it's a monument to homosexuality?"
"We're showing that there are still people who leave legacies," Papadopoulos says. "We cannot live anymore in Greece on the bones of our elders. We have to move on, show what we did in our times."
The rain came down in buckets as Alderman Burnett stepped up to speak.
"Well, efharisto," the alderman said. "Ti kanis, everybody?"
"Kala," everybody said.
"First of all," said the alderman, "it's an honor for me to be the alderman in Greektown, with such good people. To the mayor from Greece, efharisto for coming to our town, Chicago. To the architect and the sculptor, along with you ladies and gentlemen, this is gonna be a historical event for us in Greektown....To help this monument and sculpture to be carved out in Greece is an honor for us because now when we go to Greece all of us can say, I donated to that, I helped get that sculpture in Greece for Alexander the Great, who I think was a great man.
"So I just wanted to say that I'm very excited. As they say in the restaurant, Opaa!"
With that, Papadopoulos joined the alderman to pull the shiny veil from the plaster face of Alexander the Great, which looked a little like the face of Andy Papadopoulos.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.