For 20 years I made money, it was a job and a service. I messed around in plenty of mediums and treated clients honestly. I gave them what I thought they wanted as best and creatively as I could. I said yes to everything and every medium, murals, weaving, furniture, etc. At the age of 40, I was invited to an icon writing workshop with an orthodox priest. That first icon encounter swept me up like a wave. From then on, I was driven to reproduce these ancient images. Artists have titles which describes the technique or subject of their work; photographer, print maker, abstract artist, landscape artist, portrait artist, etc. I am an Iconographer. Icon painters choose to be restricted within a tradition which has a deliberate vocabulary. I am an artist within a community of tradition, past, present and future.
All the creative art in my life had been preparation for this work. I think now, “If I stop painting Icons, I will no longer paint at all.” It is a privilege at this point in my life to finally have time to explore the story and image, with little urgency to sell or be recognized.
Where do all these ideas come from?
The Byzantine Church in Constantinople elevated icons as a way to explain the Christ story in image. For the masses, books were expensive and most people could not read anyway. The Byzantium Empire preceded the Renaissance. The legacy of biblical pictures is vast, however; Renaissance and Byzantine images are not the same. Byzantine images have neither bleeding Christ or sorrowful weeping mother Mary, nor wiggly baby Jesus or anguished suffering saints. This imagery developed after the black plague in Europe where 20 million died and the church adopted the idea that we are sinful. The earlier church emphasized mystical awe and wonder which comes from Knowing God. Often the faces of Byzantine icons are with no expression, no more than a gaze towards the viewer, blank and distant having been stuck by the presence of God. Backgrounds and garments are stark and abstract, while the flesh seems to breathe.
Traditional icons of the Byzantine Church, 500 to 1500 AD are understood to be written by religious people who reproduce church doctrine and biblical text in story form as icons, using prayer as the vehicle. I have tried for 18 years to respect and learn from the tradition, yet with a noticeable amount of kicking and screaming. I Love the image but resist the confinement within the tradition. I vacillate between, my artist ego and the mysticism required to write down what we cannot see. Humans are walking Icons of the divine, breathing and conscious. The painting and mystical prayer are symbiotic; we create as we are created.
The iconographer paints with traditional egg tempera; egg yolk + water mixed with million year old stone ground into a fine dust called earth pigments. Egg yolk represents the raw potential for life and the earth pigment, “eternity”, mixed together to create divine image. Sounds easy! Which part, the painting or the divine image? The process begs the question, who is the artist?
How do we as artists transform ideas into our work?
Let me reverse the question, how can the work transform me into an idea. Iconographers are always trying to paint what we cannot see. Iconographers live in a twisted dimension: as you paint you theoretically become the image. Internally iconographers believe “beauty will save the world”, the beauty of humankind and our potential to see the divine in all things. As an icon painter, I copy image and do not call it my own, traditionally one does not sign their own work. As an artist I “imagine” new images from time to time. The images of the past continue to transform me, one day I will write one image of lasting beauty for humanity. Yup these are lofty thoughts and ridiculously pious ideas but I feel helpless to give up trying. Peace be with you