Finding our new, old road to God | Bellevue First Congregational Church, Bellevue, WA
A couple months ago, I signed up for an interesting-looking class I had come across during my internet explorations – it’s a class that lasts four days in which you paint an icon. I know very little about icons, although I might have a little more exposure to them than your average American. Growing up in Southeast Alaska, I saw paintings by artist Bryan Birdsall in which he painted icons with Native Alaskans as subjects. I visited a Russian Orthodox church in Sitka when I was in elementary school, and in college I studied Alaskan native cultures and learned a bit more about the native peoples who still follow Russian Orthodoxy as their expression of the Christian faith. But beyond that, I don’t know much about their use in practice.
As we go about creating our icons, step by step, the teacher shares bits of information. He’s an Episcopal priest and artist from Pennsylvania. He tells us how, in the creation of an icon, you get to learn about the saint you are painting. You learn, and in creating, contemplate. This has the potential to create those thin places (we’ve talked about that here on the blog before!) that allow you to experience God. As we began, he asked us to treat this experience first as a retreat, and second as an artistic experience.
We started with a pattern, which we taped to the board and traced using carbon paper. In this tradition, you don’t get to “design” the saint – you work with a design that may be hundreds of years old and that is part of the canon of icon patterns. After you paint the traced lines, you start to paint, using very translucent layers of paint that you repeat three or more times. Here’s the pattern, next to my icon in the state it was in halfway through day two. We’re painting Mary Magdalen.
As we paint, the room is generally very silent. I think we are twenty introverts, all huddled over our paintings. Our glasses are universally in strange positions because we are all doing close, fine work and we are all over 40. It’s a somewhat silent community.
There seem to be many layers of symbolism, even in the simplest tasks you perform. We all start by tracing the same pattern to create the same image, yet from the sameness of our task emerges a great diversity in the details. They are all the same yet, unique.
While I wait for the paint in each translucent layer that I apply to dry, I peacefully gaze into my icon’s face. Each of the four layers of paint that covers her face changed her expression. Adding the layers of red to her cloak bring a sudden and shocking vibrancy.
The teacher gives us one step at a time. He doesn’t tell us the plan. He asks us to silence the invisible committee of art critics on our shoulder, and focus on the praying with each brush stroke. He promises us he will not let us ruin our icon. Trust the process.
He hasn’t said it yet, but he is quietly forcing us to live in the moment.
Here is what a room full of aspiring iconographers looks like. It feels a little bit like vacation bible school for adults, but it’s quiet. Tonight, the rain was falling outside the entire time we painted, while kyrie eleisons emanated from the boom box by the window.
Update – see the follow-up post.