By Merle Exit
At Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, honoring those who have been laid to rest there is an multi-faceted, ever changing task. “We are constantly looking for something that will lead to a great discovery,” said Carl Ballenas, president of Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery. “When we walk through the grounds we are always looking at the markers and tombstones for something that we should take notice of.”
While Helen Day, one of the cemetery’s board members, was taking just such a walk, she noticed the name Nikos Bel-Jon and was especially intrigued by the description below the name on his headstone—“Metal Muralist.” According to Ballenas, “that was all it took to get the wheels in motion.” Thanks to Day’s sharp eye, and the hard work of those at Maple Grove, an event dedicated to Bel-Jon and his work is planned for next weekend.
Not only was Nikos Bel-Jon a metal muralist, he was one of the most important artists working in that medium. His work was commissioned by everyone from companies such as Pfizer to the Greek Consulate and Lincoln Center. Known for murals that would take on a three-dimensional appearance when lit from certain angles, Bel-Jon created such well-known pieces as “The Ellington Pieta,” an intricate metal mosaic that was displayed in Rockefeller Center.
Major installations of his work in New York also include one in the lobby of the Pfizer Building located on East 42nd Street. The Greek Consulate as well as Air India displays his artwork. During the 1964-65 World’s Fair, one could view the pieces on Air India along with his special “Tower of Light.”
This year, marking the 50th anniversary of his death (Aug. 11, 1966), Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery is honoring him with a celebration of his life and art Saturday, Aug. 13 at 2 pm.
The event will feature a talk from preservationist Brittany Reilly of Design Nation, and will be attended by members of Bel-Jon’s family, including his daughter, Rhea Bel-Jon Calkin. “He developed a technique that others have tried but no one else has been able to accomplish with the same results,” Rhea said of her father’s work. “He started as a painter from Greece who fell in love with painting on metals in such as way by embracing arcs, angles and illusions. When colored lights would hit it, they would become like three dimensional paintings.”
Born in Greece in 1911, Bel-Jon studied in both Athens and Paris before coming to this country after World War II. “Coming to the United States he was looking for a different avenue of painting, already having studied in Paris about all mediums of art,” his daughter said. His work was done with sheet metal, but rather than just using scrap metal he developed a relationship with Kaiser Aluminum and Kaiser Steel until the 1950s, when metal became more available.
With his connections to the Greek government, he was able to explore in the United States, spending much of his time in Astoria with family and friends. Rhea said that although they lived in Manhattan, when her father thought of a final resting place, his thoughts turned to Queens.
“As for why Maple Grove was chosen,” she said, “he wanted to be buried by a tree.”
The talk and a reception will be held in The Center, a building located at the cemetery’s entrance. Reservations are required, and can be made by calling (347) 878-6614 by Aug. 10.