An interview with Mary Jane Miller: what makes a Painting an Icon?
Tell me about yourself. Who are you?
Can you be more specific? People change every instant. I live in San Miguel Allende, Mexico. I am a full-time icon artist reminding myself that we are divine beings of light, brief reflections in time and space.
What is it about icon painting that you find yourself drawn to?
Iconographers have said, beauty can change the world and our vibration. I began painting an icon by just wanting to add one or two images to a vast collection of ancient sacred icon art meant to speak to humanity and the higher self.
So what makes a painting an icon?
Icons are portraits with a mystical quality, yet they are governed by ancient rules for iconography that date back thousands of years. These paintings are infused within humanity and with the innate goodness of man and woman waiting to be revealed. For me, their timeless beauty remains unsurpassed.
What made you paint icons, and what exactly is an icon, anyway?
Thirty years ago, I took a painting an icon workshop in the basement of a Catholic Church in Tennessee. The workshop began with prayer, followed by a 15-minute slide show of byzantine icons, a discussion of how to write an icon (another term for paint) and their meaning. Then we learned how to paint an orthodox icon. The beauty, language of iconography, and painting of mother earth mesmerized me. Seeing the images, I felt my soul connect to what I was already living in my mind and heart.
You teach people how to paint icons? Is painting them practice too?
I offer five-day workshops using egg tempera to teach people how to create their own unique icon painting. Many teachers choose to teach painting icons with acrylics, but for me, it takes away from the meditative practice, and the real purpose of the practice and the icon painting courses.
I present the practice and discipline as a visual meditation. The group maintains silence and increases their awareness. We start with an ancient icon painting example, an icon as a base to work from. As we watch the application of colored pigments, we concentrate on our thoughts happening within. In Buddhism, this practice would be called something like mindfulness.
The idea is, if the process is practiced like a discipline, the teachings seep into our regular life. Hopefully over time, it transforms your feelings into those of calm loving awareness. We come to know ourselves and God more deeply and it all comes from painting an icon.
Do you use egg tempera in Iconography?
Sunny side up or scrambled?
Hilarious! It is often mistakenly called egg tempura, like the deep-fried batter! The actual egg tempera recipe mixes egg yolk and million-year-old dirt used as the medium to create pictures of divine image.
Who Are Your Inspirations?
On your website, you say you try to give voices to the unheard female mystics of the tradition. Who is your inspiration?
Mary Magdalen is becoming an icon for women. We know very little about her, but she is a mentor to us, more than any of the other women mentioned in the new testament, except the mother of Jesus.
Mary was a common name, Mary of Bethany or Mary of Magda. Etc. For me, what is more valuable than the name, is that these women were present throughout the life of Christ. Their presence has not been fully recognized or honored. The church authorities need to step up, and come to terms with the spiritual hole left from the notable absence of women and their perception. I am simply offering the visual commemoration of these women.
Do you find any connection between the practice of using an image to quiet our soul and the practice of silence itself?
Everything is connected to our capacity to be silent.
Looking at a white wall can help. With all the racket going on worldwide, stillness is where we experience more of life.
Interior silence eradicates much of the chaotic and outlandish behavior we experience daily. Practitioners of meditation call it monkey mind, and it has become a global disease.
Those who market our buying frenzy want us to stay needy, crazy, fearful, distracted and out of control. That is precisely where and when we buy stuff to keep us engaged and keep their system going. We impulsively purchase stuff, go on vacations, prescribe pills and drugs, eat too much, listen to loud music, drive fast, buy more electronics and any number of endless apps.
All this sort of thing keeps us attached to the ‘bandwagon’. We cannot be present, aware, or healthy without a break from it. So that is why painting an icon can bring us back to our true nature.
Does using an icon have any relation to Lectio Divina?
Yes, in that the images have their origin in various parts of the bible and its stories. Iconography is the act of visually transcribing stories into a visual image. For instance, if you painted the face of Christ, you may repeatedly say, “I am the word that became flesh”. If you say it enough times like a mantra, new awareness surfaces.
You contemplate the power of ‘Word’ , “I-am–become–flesh”. The painting an icon process gives you time to go slow, breathe more profoundly, and see more clearly.
Can you describe your painting process?
I can take you through a sequence of thoughts while painting.
The way I do this is the result of many hours of painting icons with dirt. I watch as the image unfolds, as the paint moves and dries. I watch for what is moving and drying in my life. The soft gentle brush strokes reveal where I am struggling. Are they thick and heavy or wobbly and weak?
This meditation style has taught me to see the relationship of being present to identify where my mind is. Christ’s teaching;
“Where your mind is, there will be your treasure.”
Mary Jane, please tell everyone where they can go to engage with your amazing work.
Thank you. Interviews like this help people like me review where I am. At first, when you asked, I thought I had nothing to offer. What I have shared is a small part of my observations and an exhaustive number of hours in painting icons.
My books are found on LULU.com. Please support the smaller companies. There are How to Books, Journals, Coloring Books, Metal Embossing, In Light of Women, Life in Christ, and the Mary Collection. My websites are easy to find. The visuals are abundant.
The next workshops will be November 6th to November 11th, 2022, in Lewes, Delaware.
Anyone wishing to join the workshop please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org