Deacon Greg Zoltowski has created what he calls “The Face of Christ as a Palette” for Ash Wednesday, using palm ashes as his medium. Zoltowski says: “When people come up and receive the ashes, they look right at the face.” Photos by
Franchesca Caputo.
Deacon Greg Zoltowski has created what he calls “The Face of Christ as a Palette” for Ash Wednesday, using palm ashes as his medium. Zoltowski says: “When people come up and receive the ashes, they look right at the face.” Photos by Franchesca Caputo.
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Greg Zoltowski, a deacon at Our Lady of Grace in Ballston Lake at the time, often constructed charcoal drawings in his studio. Using his thumbs as his main tool, smearing and blending shadows and highlights to create depth and shape, a sudden connection struck him. Could he draw using palm ashes as a medium?

It was 2000 and Ash Wednesday was rapidly approaching. ­After successfully trying the method, he brought the idea to his parish. Although his peers initially expressed confusion about how the ash drawing of Christ’s face would integrate into the Mass, he brought his work to Ash Wednesday anyway. 

“It was a big hit,” Zoltowski said of the project he calls “The Face of Christ as a Palette.” Children were particularly impressed by receiving ash from the artwork. Zoltowski, alongside his pastor, used the drawing to mark parishioners at Our Lady of Grace with ashes. 

As an artist, Zoltowski understands in any project, it’s intended the work will survive once it’s finished. But with this project, there’s a connection between not only the medium, but the lack of permanency intended from the start. He will spray the drawings with a fixer only after they have been used to sign people in church, allowing his art to have a variety of thumb shapes floating around Christ’s face, or in some cases, consuming him.  

“The original drawings are artwork in themselves, but it’s sort of like when you cut them up and put them back together, you’re destroying and putting it back together, similar to the crucifixion and resurrection,” said Zoltowski, now a deacon currently assigned to St. Madeleine Sophie and St. Gabriel in Schen­ectady. 

After picking out a photo of Christ, Zoltowski will make a transparency of the image and project it onto a wall, where he then works off the projection by using charcoal to draw an outline of each of the pictures. Then he takes the drawing to his table where he fills in details from the original image. 

The result is a realistic portrait of Christ’s face, drawn with palm ashes and a little bit of charcoal, with his face serving as a palette to sign people with.

“This happens in all artwork. You have to take the tube of paint and put it on a palette, and when you do that the tube of paint is destroyed, and then something else comes out of it.” 

Both Zoltowski and his wife, Marianne, said the experience of receiving ash from such a portrait gives parishioners a deeper connection to Ash Wednesday. 

“When people come up and receive the ashes, they look right at the face,” he said. 

“It’s much more touching,” Marianne said, adding the artwork creates a “faith-filled kind of experience.”

After the initial Ash Wednesday launch, Zoltowski soon expanded his practice to prison ministries, retreats and other parishes. “This year I’m doing six of them at Christ Our Light,” Zoltowski says. 

Last year he stopped creating “The Face of Jesus as a Palette” due to an exhaustingly high demand from one parish. Zoltowski said he was just burned out.

“The process for me, was like, becoming a machine-made thing. It lacked the same symbolism, so I stopped,” he said. “Then (Deacon Richard Theisen, Parish Life Director of Christ Our Light parish) asked if I could do it this year. I was now on the fence if I wanted to start again. This time I needed help.” 

So husband and wife collaborated and took on the project.

“She came up with this technique, the two of us working on it together,” Zoltowski said. “So I got back into it again, my engine revved up. Marianne’s going to help me now with pulling them together.”

This isn’t new for the couple, as Marianne said they’ve created banners and brochures for parishes in the past. Even the makeshift studio inside their restored attic is split perfectly in half: her side lined with glass jars filled with various screws, buttons, and beads for her sewing; his side holding the projector and shelves filled with previous artworks and a large table. She is responsible for a vast majority of their pillows and slipcovers, while his artwork immerses their home, so much so he jokingly dubs the space “Greg’s Gallery.”

Reflecting back on the first time he brought his work into church, he regrets not making more than one. After one of the parishioners told him he should have taken a photo of his art beforehand, he responded that it’s about the entire process.

“I said, ‘That’s not the point!’” Zoltowski said, “The point is not to reveal what it looked like in the beginning, but to see what it looks like in the end. And then you realize that we carry him with us.”