A Week in the Icon Writing Life

June 23, 2014 8:15 am: Here I am live blogging from the Icon Writing Workshop at St. Paul’s Great Hall, brought to you by the Cathedral Arts Committee. It’s been a hectic year for me so far, so I’m really enjoying the week off from work, to be spent in prayerful contemplation as I write my first icon. Praying that my lack of artistic knowhow isn’t too embarrassing or obvious…

Teresa Harrison is our instructor. We gather in a circle for a morning Eucharist led by Canon Richard Lief, who will also be writing his first icon this week. We read the lessons and gospel for the day, and Canon Lief gives a short sermon, beautifully connecting the gospel to the task at hand, the art of icon writing.

After we take the Eucharist, Teresa leads introductions. There are twenty of us, and I quickly surmise that this is a diverse group. Teresa has two apprentices, Kim and Mike, who assist with the class. They also write icons commissioned to Teresa, and will be working on 33″ tall commissioned icons in addition to the smaller ones for class.

Other attendees have taken several of Teresa’s workshops, and/or collect icons. Mike has brought in one of his icons from his collection – read mini-museum – of over 200 icons. This one is about 200 years old and is exquisitely detailed. He gives a brief description of the scenes portrayed.

Nancy from Idyllwild is a stained glass artist, and has written icons in egg tempera before, but never acrylics as we are about to do. Meanwhile there are others, like myself, who are new to all of this, but may have read a bit here or there, borrowed a smock, and are praying that divine intervention will save us from a gold-leaf related mishap.

I admit, Teresa suggested the icon I’m writing, and I just read about it the night before. Christ the Pantocrater, the oldest depiction of Jesus, from the 6th century. Through that dark period of history (that we are currently reliving) when graven images were destroyed, this icon survived due to its remote location at the Greek Orthodox St. Catherine’s Monastery of Mt. Sinai, Egypt. Since the Arab Spring, armed Muslim Bedouins help the monks to guard the art and library while the brothers painstakingly digitize the whole lot as quickly as possible.

I let Teresa pick my icon because I don’t want to get in over my head and I figure she has over 12 years’ experience teaching these classes. It shows. She is organized, with every students’ place set up the day before (large and small brushes, pens, pencils, cups, prepared gesso boards, etc. etc). She has everyone’s name and icon memorized, amplified chants playing from her iPhone dock, special icon prayers and rules, and all this without being too didactic or overbearing…in fact she is the contrary, eternally patient, caring and empathetic.

“Growing up as a child of missionaries in Colombia, we took a precarious road to and from my boarding school. We prayed for travelers along that road, that they wouldn’t be wiped out by a landslide or fall off the mountain to their death, and amazingly everyone made it through. The journey of writing an icon is a lot like that road…scary sometimes…but rewarding if you just persevere.”

I arrange my gesso board (i.e., canvas) with tracing paper and carbon and begin going over the lines of Christ the Pantocrater and thinking about Teresa’s Rule #2 of Icon Writing: Paint Like You are Being Watched by Christ Himself. In my case, I don’t need the reminder. I can’t remember Rule #1 but Rule #2, I’ve got that one down.

Another rule is to Pray for Guidance in Color Selection. Failing that, Teresa has a detailed color scheme memorized for each icon that she will share with you. I take advantage of this when I begin with the paint. Nancy marvels at the modern convenience of acrylics vs egg tempera. God said let there be Indian Red Oxide, Burnt Sienna and Yellow Light. And, it was good.

At noon we break for the noon prayer and a delicious lunch of chicken Caesar salad and ice cream provided on location by Sexton Bob Oslie. We reconvene at 1pm for some more circle time. Teresa leads a discussion on our observations and reflections regarding icon writing before we return to our places and continue.

From time to time, Teresa gives short demonstrations on different techniques. Some are icon-specific and others are general techniques, like shading contours in a flowing robe, which most people encounter. We are to practice the demo immediately after it’s given, and then continue with other parts of the icon. In this way the new teaching is reinforced and Teresa can provide individualized instruction to twenty people writing ten different icons.

In addition, I peek at my neighbors. A lot. I am seated at a table with three others writing the same icon, none of them newbies like myself. I study their icons, thinking…”How did you shade that…” Oh yeah, I think I remember Rule #1 now…the one about Reverent Silence to Reflect. So that means no speaking and more peeking. Another icon writing rule is To Not Be Jealous of Your Neighbor. Pretty close to impossible. But…no rule against peeking. Nancy’s taking a break? Peek, peek, peek…

June 27, 2014 1:00pm: The week just flew by. I’m thinking how I got to know some really interesting people, from Coronado, Alpine, Idyllwild, as well as San Diego. Many of us have traveled the world over. It has been for some an opportunity to touch base with old friends in the icon writing world, as well as make new connections.

Others have recently experienced difficult times and felt a need for a break, and I think all have welcomed the workshop as a spiritual retreat from our wild, wired world (although I may have occasionally checked my iPhone as the latest layer of paint dried). One participant relates how the workshop has been a “healing experience” amidst dealing with a debilitating terminal illness, and it’s hard to contain my emotions now.

We carry our icons to the chapel for the final blessing today, led by the Rev. Colin Mathewson, and set them across the altar. Each one separately is a lovingly cut jewel, and strung together across the altar they illuminate the spare chapel with an almost palpable light. Then the blessing is given and suddenly the icons go their separate ways, charged with carrying on the centuries-old tradition of prayerful reverence and icon writing for the next generation.

Julie McMinn

The workshop was sponsored by the Cathedral Center for Performing and Visual Arts

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