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What is iconography?

Iconography is an ancient spiritual practice whereby the writer (artist) creates images of persons or scenes from the Bible and saints of the Church.

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In what ways do icons differ from other art forms?

Icons differ in many ways: they are written according to a prescribed set of canons (rules) making them holy and independent of time and space. There are no shadows. They are painted (written) using only natural pigments and gold leaf on a wooden board. Only what God has made is used on the icon. All icons are in essence, the Incarnate Christ and contain within them all of salvation history. The icon bears witness to both the human and divine actualized within the saint. The heavenly nature cannot be expressed through human means, only pointed at with the help of symbolism of forms, colors and lines. Holy images do not communicate human concepts “about" the truth but truth itself — divine revelation! The icon becomes a window into heaven and when venerated, connects us to the heavenly prototype. The icon becomes a conduit and a veil between heaven and earth.

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Do you feel you bear certain responsibilities other artists do not?

Absolutely! The possibility exists of leading others into heresy. This would be a grave sin in my case. Knowing Scripture, studying under a master iconographer and extensive research guard against this.

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What inspired you to become an iconographer?

In 2006 I was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. A fellow pilgrim told me of a master iconographer, Dmitry Andrejev, who gave workshops once a year in Denver. I attended at the first opportunity! Afterwards, I abandoned all other art forms as iconography was a perfect match for my spirituality and particular artistic skill set.

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What kind of training have you had in order to do this type of work?

As for the technical aspect, I have attended a number of workshops, read numerous books but am largely self-taught. I am also a graduate of the Denver Catholic Biblical School. Catechesis is ongoing and lifelong. Each icon also teaches me something new spiritually and something new technically. For example, when painting St. Francis of Assissi I had to learn how to render fur for the first time! Also, capturing just the right expression for each face can be quite challenging as they are subtle and should not convey emotion.

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Have you always been artistic and is it a help or hindrance in creating an icon?

Yes, I have been artistic as long as I can remember and am experienced in a variety of media. I would say initially at least, it is a hindrance—especially if you've never used egg-tempera. The brain must think in reverse when working from dark to light and in layers. Natural pigments are especially challenging as each has it’s own unique properties. Some are gritty, some are smooth and creamy, while others are best suited to the transparent layers. This is completely different from oil or acrylic which are uniform in consistency. Interestingly, people with no artistic skill whatsoever often produce some of the best icons at workshops precisely because they have no training nor preconceptions. They don’t have to consciously reverse their brains.

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Discuss the materials used in the process of creating an icon.

Icons are written (painted) on a hardwood panel, usually poplar or birch. Linen is then glued to the board and several layers of gesso are applied giving a nice smooth and absorbent surface for the gold leaf and egg tempera. Layers of pigment are applied alternating between opaque and transparent using a “floating” technique (as opposed to brush stroking). Once complete, the icon is sealed with a linseed and stand oil mixture. There are 22 steps in the creation of an icon—each having a practical and spiritual purpose. You can learn more about the steps by clicking on the Process Page.

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What is the process for commissioning an icon?

The context in which it will displayed is the first step: will it reside in a church or home? Next the subject of our icon is discussed. Some people already have a favorite saint in mind but not always. I can guide you through this process as there is a vast array to choose from. Finally, many factors determine the price of an icon: size; shape of the board (rectangular, arched); whether or not the board is to be braced (preventing warping); intricacy of pattern; amount and intricacy of metal work (gold and/or silver) and shipping. Icons are designed to last for hundreds of years! Whatever your budget, generations will be inspired by their beauty and heavenly connection , drawing the viewer ever more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnate God.

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Discuss some of the symbolism used in iconography.

There are no random elements—everything has purpose and meaning—even colors! Icons are a visual language containing within them all of salvation history.

Let’s look on the Gallery Page. St. Mary Magdalene, known as the “Apostle to the Apostles." Her inner garment is orange representing wisdom. This is her inner nature, the nature with which she was born. The outer garment is bluish green. This outer nature is what she would become having once 'put on' the nature of God. Blue green is typical for an Apostle. Her head is covered in reverence and humility. She holds elements specific to her: the jar of perfumed oil she poured on Jesus' head in Matthew 26:6-13 and the red egg with the inscription “Christ is Risen.” The red egg refers to a meeting she had with Tiberius and since then, it is Orthodox tradition to dye our Pascha eggs red. Her face expresses humility and repentance. All of these clues help us to read the icon. Even if illiterate you would know this is Mary Magdalene.

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How does being an iconographer grow you spiritually?

It is a practice akin to meditation. I fast from meat and listen to chant music or paint in silence. I begin with the iconographer’s prayer then control my breathing as I pray the Jesus Prayer. As I paint I focus on different aspects of the technique or subject. For example, step 6 is the application and preparation of liquid clay. This is the foundation for the gold leaf. I am reminded of Adam whom God created from the dust of the earth.

There are other Biblical references to God as “Potter.” The potter must purify the clay removing the rocks until only there is only pure dust and adds water—wet but without form. Secondly, the weak clay is shaped. Finally, the clay is hardened and made strong by fire—the vessel for holding the spirit becomes stable. We can see there is a correlation between scripture, iconography and our own spiritual formation.

Prior to conversion I was like the clay full of “rocks.” As I grew closer in relationship with God, these rocks were removed (certain behaviors or ways of thinking). Slowly, I began to be formed into a Christian. There would be many spiritual tests and trials along the way as I was “fired” and made a stronger Christian. I meditate on the process of my conversion and the manifestation of God in my life and my attempt to be a godly person. So clay represents the human and the gold represents God. Of course this is an ongoing process, but it is a tiny example of the infinite ways in which one can grow deeper in relationship with God through iconography.

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Do you have a favorite Scripture verse?

Isaiah 43:1, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

As I read on through verse 7, God makes it clear He is my protector, my savior; that I am precious and loved by Him. He is my Creator and my purpose is to glorify Him.

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What prompted your conversion?

At age 40 I was diagnosed with cancer. It was a huge wake-up call. What had I done with my life up to that point? What purpose did I have? I was disappointed with what I saw. Praying at Cabrini Shrine outside of Denver, I begged God for my life. If He spared me, I vowed to do whatever it took to become Catholic. I would read the Bible from cover to cover. I would offer a day of thanksgiving every year for 5 years at Cabrini on the anniversary of my surgery, and I would go on pilgrimage to The Holy Land. Nineteen years after my diagnosis I have now embraced Orthodoxy. Icons are part of my everyday life—it just made sense that they would also be part of my liturgical experience as well.

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What is your ultimate purpose in doing this type of work?

Surprisingly it is not converting others to Orthodoxy, although I obviously would not be opposed to it! Conversion is the job of the Holy Spirit. I desire only to expose people to an ancient form of art and spirituality with which they may not be familiar. I believe we are all on a quest for a higher sense of purpose, of being. Iconography is the path I have chosen, or, perhaps better said, it has chosen me. I pray my journey inspires others to begin or continue on their journey, whatever that may be. I encourage my fellow human beings to be their highest and best selves, to use their lives, talents and treasure in service to The Creator and thus to each other.