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Gordon Lankton’s Russian icon, African art at home in Clinton

Gordon B. Lankton is the founder of the Museum of Russian Icons and the Gallery of African Art, in Clinton.

SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF

Gordon B. Lankton is the founder of the Museum of Russian Icons and the Gallery of African Art, in Clinton.

CLINTON — Some collectors leave their precious possessions to their children. Others give them to museums or libraries. For his extensive collection of Russian icons and artifacts, Gordon B. Lankton built his own museum. In 2006, he took over an unused mill building near the green in this old factory town  and turned it into the Museum of Russian Icons.

“I figure since I’m 81, I won’t be around too long,” Lankton says. “I don’t want [the collections] to end up somewhere else. I love Clinton.”

The Gallery of African Art and Museum of Russian Icons.

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That goes as well for his African art collection. Lankton's newly renovated and expanded Gallery of African Art, located on High Street, Clinton’s main commercial drag, stages its grand reopening on Oct. 27. The space — an adjunct of the museum — has quadrupled, to nearly 3,000 square feet, to house a collection of more than 500 objects from 32 West African tribes.

Kent dur Russell, the museum’s CEO and curator, calls Lankton a social entrepreneur. “He has put an extraordinary amount of money into this museum, and he’s doing his best to ensure that Clinton as a community survives,’’ Russell says.

Lankton, an Illinois native, first came to Clinton 50 years ago for a job as a partner at plastics manufacturer Nylon Products, now Nypro Inc. Back in 1962, it was a small business, but Lankton, who ultimately became CEO, built Nypro into the largest plastic injection molding company in the country for non-automotive products. Now retired, he is still chairman of the board.

One of the plastics man’s deepest passions is wood. That’s what drew him to the African art, and to the icons.

Painted typically in egg tempera on wood, icons are sanctified images, and their tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church goes back to 988. They depict Christ, Mary, saints, and holy events. The tempera, plus gold leaf and other metals, imbue them with a glittering, jewel-like quality, and they are painted with a precision akin to that seen in Persian miniatures. The museum’s collection comprises more than 500 objects, some dating six centuries. The Festival Row Icons, an 18-foot-long series of 12 conjoined panels commemorating holy days, made for a church outside St. Petersburg around 1650, are the newest highlight.

Lankton has invested millions into designing and expanding the museum. In the six years since the museum opened, it has grown into an adjoining building — Clinton's old courthouse and jail — and an aluminum-clad addition.

“Gordon wanted a state-of-the-art, fully accreditable museum from the get-go,’’ says Russell. “When we were planning, our audience capped out at 6,000. But we have 16,000, and it's sustainable.”

The museum has become a destination. “It's a world-class educational and cultural institution for Russian icons,” says Erin Williams, executive director of the Worcester Cultural Coalition, of which the museum is a member, and cultural development officer for the city of Worcester. “It’s the only kind of its caliber in the US. Scholars comes from all over . . . and it’s become an economic and social driver in the community.”

For Lankton, it all began with pennies. He started collecting them when he was 8, and built a complete set going back to 1794. As a Boy Scout during World War II, he cultivated a collection of war posters. He began acquiring African art about 20 years ago, after seeing another man’s collection.

“I like to collect,” Lankton said. “I get one, and then I have to have some more.”

His office at the Museum of Russian Icons is appointed with pieces from many of his collections. There’s a Cambodian hand-carved wooden Buddha, and shelves of cast-iron toy cars dating from the 1920s. “I had this one in college, the real thing, with a rumble seat,” he says, holding up a toy Model A.

Lankton’s love for Russian icons came about with the fall of the Iron Curtain, but he had been dreaming of Russia for years. As a young man, he had spent time in the Army in Germany, then taken a nine-month motorcycle trip, driving southeast through Europe, into the Middle East, and all around Asia. “All I could think of was Russia. I couldn’t get there the whole route,” Lankton says.

SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF 

The newly renovated African art museum stages a grand reopening Oct. 27 and houses more than 500 pieces.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1989, he seized the opportunity to go, and got involved in business ventures there. He found his first icon at a flea market.

“I saw this thing laying in the dust,” he says. “I bought it for $25 and took it home and studied it.”

“The Russian Orthodox views the icon as a protective object,” says Russell. “In World War II, during the siege of Stalingrad, icons were flown in planes around the city. Even though they were atheists. To Russians, they hold a precious part of their identity.”

For nearly 70 years of communist rule, the icons were illegal in the Soviet Union. People hid them or destroyed them. They were burned in city squares. “Stalin sold truckloads of them into Western Europe, trying to make money for World War II,” Lankton says.

“I arrived just at the changing point,” he adds. “All of a sudden, there were icons in the shops.”

He purchased many icons in Germany, and other collectors have donated to the museum. 

Still, collecting them has posed its challenges. “It was illegal to take icons out of Russia and it still is,” says Lankton. “In the early days . . . I would put a small one in my suitcase. I got caught a few times.”

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.
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