It’s hard to think of a Boise artist who was as beloved as John Collias. A prolific, diverse and technically skilled painter, Collias was also a founding member of the Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Boise and a vibrant community booster.
Through his iconic “Portrait of a Distinguished Citizen” feature in the Idaho Statesman, he chronicled Boise’s history by shining a light on the people who made a difference in the community. And by doing so, he made a difference himself.
Collias died at 10 p.m. on March 29 at Willow Park Senior Living in Boise. Born June 12, 1918, he was just a few months shy of his 99th birthday.
“He had an incredible run and an incredible life,” says his grandson Nick Collias.
The last few weeks John Collias was bedridden, but visited frequently by friends and family and surrounded by his artwork — family portraits, Idaho landscapes and other pieces hung by Nick.
Collias suffered from diabetes since his 60s.
“He was a terrible diabetic patient. All he did was eat doughnuts and candy,” Nick says. “He cheated death for many years. I think it’s a testament to pure physical activity.”
John Collias was a notoriously bad driver, so he walked nearly everywhere. That included treks from his house on Cole Road to his Downtown Boise studio almost daily.
He was a brilliant portrait artist. Some of his commissions took days to complete, but he could sketch and paint a person’s likeness in a matter of hours if necessary.
He painted portraits of Idaho’s most influential people, including Idaho’s governors since the 1960s and iconic citizens such as Harry Morrison and J.R. and Esther Simplot.
Collias received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2009 and the Mayor’s Awards in Arts and History’s Lifetime Achievement award in 2015. His work was included in a group show at Boise Art Museum in 1980. He also had a retrospective of his work in 2007 at the Idaho State Historical Museum. He created logo Boise State University.
“John Collias leaves behind a body of work that is likely never to be matched in Boise,” said Boise Mayor Dave Bieter. “His portraits of Distinguished Citizens grace the walls of homes across the valley, including my family’s. His painting of my daughter hangs in my own home. I’m grateful we were able to recognize him recently for his lifetime achievement. Like his art, he was an original. He will be sorely missed.”
Collias was again drafted into service by the Idaho Statesman to create a poster for the news organization’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2014. During that time, he became friends with then-publisher Mike Jung.
“Even beyond his incredible artistry, I loved the many stories John shared with me and the tremendous impact he had on the community,” said Jung, who now lives in Florida.
An Indiana native, Collias and his brother Nick arrived in Boise as soldiers stationed at Gowen Field where they drew editorial cartoons for the base’s newspaper during World War II.
While here, John Collias fell in love with Boisean Lily Kepros, whom he met through the local Greek community. They married just after the war in 1946 and moved to Chicago, where Collias studied at the American Academy of Art. Collias hoped to find a job as a commercial illustrator, but that eluded him, and the Colliases returned to Boise in the early 1950s.
That’s when Collias created “Round About the Boise Valley,” a collage of sketches and snippets of news and gossip that ran in the Idaho Statesman from 1951 to 1953. Portrait of a Distinguished Citizen started as part of that feature.
In 1953, the family moved back to Chicago, while John worked in factories to support his growing family. They returned to Boise in 1962, and Collias took a job as a cowboy with his father-in-law.
Thankfully, a year later he ran into Idaho Statesman publisher Jim Brown, who remembered his work and offered him a job.
From then on, Collias worked as a full-time artist.
He and Lily raised their three sons, Tim, George and Steve, and joined the congregation of the Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church at 2618 W. Bannock St. He painted the original icons for the altar. Collias’ portrait of Jesus is still used during Easter services.
The Distinguished Citizen series ran weekly in the Idaho Statesman from 1963 until 1993. Collias drew his portraits with a grease pencil on coquille board, an unforgiving medium that produced print-quality black and white tones.
Through his landscapes of Idaho done in his loose, vibrant, sometimes abrupt style, Collias offered glimpses of Boise’s past, whether that was a watercolor of a market that once stood at 611 Washington St., or the scenery outside his backdoor.
“I call them the diary of a moment, “ John Collias said in 2010.
Nick Collias collected his grandfather’s work and published a book, “John Collias, Round About the Boise Valley” in 2010. Copies of the book will be available at no charge at John Collias’ wake.
Collias is survived by his wife Lily, their three sons, seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Wake and funeral information
A wake for John Collias will take place at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at Alden-Waggoner Funeral Home, 5400 W. Fairview Ave., Boise. A service is planned for 1:30 p.m. Monday, April 3, at St. Michael’s Episcopal Cathedral, 518 N 8th St., Boise. (The service is not being held at the Greek Orthodox church because of space limitations, Nick Collias said.)
Instead of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the John & Lily Collias Family Athletic Endowed Scholarship at Boise State University through the Bronco Athletic Association, 1464 W. University Dr., Boise, ID 83706, 208-426-3556 or a charity of your choice.