Q&A with M. Zoie Lafis of the Center for Hellenic Studies

We recently had the opportunity to connect with Maria Zoie Lafis, Administrative Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies. Ms. Lafis shares insights on the work she does at the Center for Hellenic Studies as well as her work as an artist.

The CHS, in its continued commitment to scholarly research, is identifying opportunities to support artistic expression and performance.



CHS: The Center has recently published the online version of Gregory Nagy’s new book, Masterpieces of Metonymy: From Ancient Greek Times to Now. Your artwork is featured on the cover. Can you tell us a bit about the image? How was it created and what does it depict?

2750The cover features an oil-on-canvas painting entitled Women in Procession, which was created in 2003 while Greg was preparing for the Martin Classical Lectures at Oberlin College. After some stimulating conversations about metonymy and processions with Greg at the CHS, I went back to my studio and worked on some sketches. The result was a composition featuring women in procession, en route to making offerings and wreaths at the sacred space of the goddess whom they will worship by way of singing and dancing. This is a topic that I have always loved and have been studying over many years. I remembered studying in my youth the Mycenean era frescoes from Pylos, and the work draws from those memories and the emotions they engender.

When I showed the painting to Greg, he suggested that I share it with the friends and colleagues at Oberlin, and, more specifically, with Kirk Ormand, who is the Nathan A. Greenberg Professor of Classics at Oberlin College, and he in turn suggested that it would be a great image to use in promotion of the Martin Lectures. I was thrilled that Kirk’s team used it as the picture featured in the posters for the lectures, and now that the book is published I am honored to have it featured on the cover as well.


CHS: What works influence you as an artist generally? And what were your influences with this piece?

Mycenaean_WomanAs an artist, I draw from all that surrounds me and resonates with me. In addition to an on-going study of the history of art, my work draws from my environment, and from my relationships with friends and colleagues, especially with fellow artists.

For Women in Procession, I drew not only from Mycenean frescoes but also from the work of Mark Rothko, with which I was very much engaged in the early 2000s. My goal was to open spaces in the composition and set memories of form in it. The layering of pigment is used to evoke the layering of time, and the forms are rendered in a fragmentary way so as to evoke concepts and practices beyond what is immediately visually present, alluding to a metonymic quality and potential.


CHS: What would you like the audience to “read” through the cover of the book?

My hope is that the image on the cover conveys the memory of something masterful, just as it draws from masterpieces of ancient Greek art, and that it continues to resonate with the readers of Masterpieces of Metonymy well after their engagement with the book.


CHS: What does your work at the Center involve?

As Administrative Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, my contribution is mainly administrative, organizational, infrastructural. My work at the Center provides the conditions that sustain the smooth operation of our programs and our activities. In essence, I optimize our resources.

The Center functions very much as a lighthouse for members of our ever-expanding constituency, facilitating navigation toward their goals (hence our logo, the Pharos of Alexandria). We provide an environment that fosters research, as well as dissemination of discoveries and methodologies, and we have a continuing commitment to teaching and learning. We also help our constituents connect dots both within our communities and beyond them.

The Center also functions as a passageway, through which research journeys launch into unchartered waters. This is fittingly represented by The Pillars of Herakles, a mosaic diptych by Hildreth Meiere installed in 2014 in our courtyard and reading room.



CHS: Would you like to tell us a bit about the work that you do to connect the Center with other artists?

WSG-Micromonuments 2I feel inspired by the Center, by its library, by its research fellows, and by its affiliates as they engage in their approach to their areas of interest and expertise. We have experienced great interest from practitioners in the creative arts to use our library collection for their research. In response to this development, it is my pleasure to serve as the coordinator of creative arts and culture projects at the Center.

adavey.ThaleiaIn addition, through the designation of an exhibition space, we are delighted to engage in the presentation of the visual arts on our campus. Our inaugural exhibit, a collection of Donovan’s Sapphographs in collaboration with Govinda Gallery in December 2015, was followed by an installation of Micro-Monuments in collaboration with The Washington Sculptors Group in May 2016, and subsequently by a selection of Anne Davey’s paintings and charcoal drawings from her series From the Depths of the Deep Sea. These installations have provided an opportunity for us to not only meet artists but also to enjoy the dialogues they afford between practitioners and researchers within the humanities.


CHS: Could you share a few words about the SapphoFest?

SapphoFest is series of celebrations inspired by the lyric poet Sappho and by song culture more widely, as well by ancient Greek poetry, songmaking, lyric poetry, and performative poetry through time. We had the opportunity to gather six years ago in June 2010 in Athens and Nafplio, and then again in December 2015 here in Washington.

Sapphos-DrumTalented friends in various disciplines contributed to these celebrations. Our dear friend Donovan Leitch, a world-renowned performer and musician as well as lyric poet himself, had dedicated some of his musical work to Sappho. In addition, he created an exciting series of digital prints, named Sapphographs, to pay homage to Sappho in a pop art style. We at the Center worked with Donovan and his good friend from Govinda Gallery, Chris Murray, to bring this series of Sapphographs to venues in Greece and Washington. The installation functioned as a catalyst for a range of activities that involved the participation of colleagues from the academic community, as well as friends from the theater and performing arts communities. More information about the program can be found on our website.

We very much look forward to our next Sapphofest (dates and venue to be announced). In the meantime, we stay committed to encouraging continued research, learning, and expression with respect to poetry and song culture.


The work of M. Zoie Lafis can also be found on the covers of the following books:

  • Greek Ritual Poetics, edited by Dimitrios Yatromanolakis and Panagiotis Roilos, available in print through Harvard University Press
  • Plato’s Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception, edited by James H. Lesher, Debra Nails, Frisbee Sheffield, available in print through Harvard University Press and online on the CHS website
  • The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy by Casey Dué, available in print through the University of Texas Press and online on the CHS website

Her work is also featured in the catalog of the Old Vic production of Electra.

Image credit: Mycenaean Woman (Fresco). Image via Wikimedia Commons.