Divine imagery straddling creativity and blasphemy and interview
with Patrick Timothy Mullikin
All photos by Patrick Timothy Mullikin
“You start with a white surface, which is the undifferentiated essence of God,” Mary Jane Miller says from her studio in Colonia San Antonio. “This is the whiteness before the Big Bang. It has no color. It has no form. It has no shape. It has no lines. And no thought. It’s the divine void.”
OK. This is heavy stuff, to be sure, but iconographer Miller’s delivery is light and a delight.
That white surface, in simpler, secular terms, is the medium upon which Miller will “write” an icon—a painting of Christ, Mary, assorted saints and angels, venerated among Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Catholic Churches
“Write” an icon? Yes, she explains, the correct term is to “write,” not to “paint” an icon.
“The early people who knew Christ began to write letters to one another, and those letters formed what we now know as the Bible. Artists and creative people had vision and insight into what they thought was happening in a (Bible) story, and they began to ‘write’ icons, using iconographical language.”
Miller renders her icons using egg tempera, a medium consisting of colored pigments mixed with egg yolk. “It’s the essence of life, the egg yolk: the raw potential for life. Mixed with million-year-old dirt, it creates a divine image.”
There are some 500 of these divine images within the iconic canon, a guidebook of sorts, cobbled together during the past 1,500 years. While those 500 images remain static, how they are rendered will vary according to an artist’s style. (Miller’s tend to be softer, sometimes a little out there. Some of her contemporary icons, such as her Mother Theresa,or Confucius may raise an eyebrow from the purists.)
The reason the 500 images don’t change, Millers says, is because the viewer wouldn’t know who or what he is she is looking at.
“In other words, if you saw Jesus in a kilt, with a cowboy hat on, you might say, ‘Who is that?’ But if he is always in red and blue, and he’s always looking straight at you, you’ll always know that’s Jesus. If you see John the Baptist, his hair always crazy because he’s out in the desert and unkempt and out of his mind, you know it’s John the Baptist. You can just look at icons and read the language.”
Miller, a painter—murals and furniture—and a weaver (“I wove for 10 years. It’s back and forth, back and forth, and it’s terribly boring. But that’s where I learned to pray.”), says she became in interested in icons 20 years ago, by chance, while living in Virginia with her husband of 40 years, Valentín Gómez, whose metalwork adorns many of her icons.
She says she ran into a woman, a fellow Virginian who was devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who asked Miller if she would be interested in painting an icon of the Virgin. Miller knew nothing about icons. The woman mentioned an upcoming icon-writing workshop in neighboring Tennessee. Miller and a friend attended the life-changing workshop
The instructor, she recalls with a hearty laugh, was orthodox and entered the classroom wearing a black robe, a giant cross and a big hat. “He was lighting candles and praying to icons, and I thought, ‘Oh, dear. This is going to be difficult.’” Each morning began with a 15-minute slide show of classic icons from Russia.
By the end of the week she was hooked, and she has been writing icons since. She estimates she has written close to 1,000 icons during the past 20 years—that averages roughly one every 24 days. “Five hundred of them are probably still right here in this room,” she says.
For four years Miller sold her work from her gallery on Pila Seca, a lucrative enterprise, she says. “I sold a lot of little icons, but I’d lost some of my reason for doing this. We also had gallery shows in Boston, Florida, Houston and Puerto Vallarta.”
Miller’s style, she admits, bends, if not breaks, the rules on occasion. Case in point: her alien St. Nicholas. Though rendered in classic icon style, her hydrocephalic subject peers at the viewer through extraterrestrial eyes.
“OK. I broke the law with this one,” she says with a laugh. “But my rules get bigger and bigger. If we go out 10,000 years in the future, maybe our bodies won’t look like they do now, maybe they’ll look like this,” she says pointing to her alien St. Nicholas dressed in a traditional bishop’s robe.
Creative license or blasphemy? That depends on the viewer. Pushing the iconographic envelope separates Miller from the rest of the pack, and she seems to revel in doing so.
“When anybody does anything that goes against tradition, you’re going to get criticized for it. This iconography goes back 1,500 years. So for me, little Mary Jane Miller in 2016 in Mexico who decides I’m going to go off on a branch and get cut off, one less will not kill the tree. The (tradition) tree is really strong.”
When you mess with tradition, which she admits doing, you are subject to criticism, which she is prone to regularly on her websites, sanmiguelicons.com and peacebestill.net
“I’m rebellious. I like to provoke the Orthodox status quo—but only a little bit. I have theologians who think I’m right on. I have theologians who say: ‘No. No. No. You are a blasphemer and a heretic.’ I have those who say, ‘I never thought about it this way.’ I have those who say, ‘Bravo. Keep going.’
Though rebellious by nature, she is also devoted to God. In icon writing, the last stroke of paint, always white paint, she says, is applied to the white of the eye. “It is the essence of God. That final stroke, that line.” It’s also an introduction to the next white surface upon which she will begin writing a new icon.
“My journey was never to be an artist. It was always to be close to God. Icons clinched it for me.”
You may contact Mary Jane Miller at email@example.com.
READ the entire article by Patrick
Patrick Timothy Mullikin, of Mexican-Irish ancestry, moved from Southern California to San Miguel last September, bringing with him more than 40 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine writing and still photography, including five years as a U.S. Navy journalist. He also owned a vinyl record shop and cafe in Montpelier, Vt., and was the creator and emcee of the Great Green Mountain Bob Dylan Wannabe Contest held annually in Vermont’s capital city. He was editor of Lokkal Magazine/Revista from January through September. This is his last article for the magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.