Coming Back to Life…

Two years ago I tore my rotator cuff and have been recovering ever since.  Surgery and physical therapy had become my life, and I am just now coming back to iconography.  I’d like to share some of my work and experiences with you.  I choose to paint icons that resonate with my soul and heart.  While I was painting full time, each of the icons would take approximately one month to complete. 


Christ’s First Blessing

           The Rabbi                                                                                               



In the beginning, I tried to share my work with slavic churches in the area offering to speak and display my work.  And, I have run into the same challenge most artists have run into…I have no takers.  This confuses.  One would think in this time when the arts are being formally celebrated that pastors and priests would jump at the chance for community building through historical knowledge and a grooming of the next generation to learn and continue a 2000 year old church tradition.  This has not been my experience.  Although I mailed a letter and photos of my work to roughly 20 clerics in NJ requesting a meeting, I had no takers, even from my own parish priest.  So I join the ranks of Salon des Refusés (“Salon of the Refused”).  I remind myself that Van Gogh died penniless and that the Prussians cut Camille Pissarro’s canvasses out of their frames to walk upon across muddy sidewalks. Another story about artists, as old as time. I am not special.  Still, the rejection stings , casting doubts about persisting.  It is an interesting philosophical question; whether to continue one’s work when there are no others wishing to share it.  Does doing my work in seclusion contribute my share in Tikkun Olam?  I’d like to think so.  

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The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For the time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


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Wabi Sabi and the Art of Iconography

The world was created by an artist. Hand-made and full of color and irregularity. The artist had a wabi-sabi sense of beauty…a Japanese aesthetic. Nothing too perfect, nothing superfluous. Take man, for example. Or even woman, 2 point O. Do we not match the definition of wabi-sabi?;

“centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.

Each of us perfect in our own imperfect way. All we have to do is look in the mirror and we are bound to notice our asymmetry–how the left side of our face does not match the left, how one foot is shorter or wider than the other.
12. sinai christ 512. sinai christ 5

We can spend our whole lives meditating on the nature of our existence, when wabi-sabi described it all so beautifully for us, that there are…

three marks of existence (三法印 sanbōin?), specifically impermanence (無常 mujō?), suffering (苦 ku?) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (空 kū?).

Is this not what iconography and monasticism teach us?

God has structured us in such a way that our experiences of suffering are inevitable, and that handled with grace they add to our beauty, our luminosity at the end of a life well lived. Suffering and the gradual self emptying of pride in all its many aspects. Just as iconography teaches that it is not by our own hand that the icon is created, but by the Holy Spirit working through us.

Suffering has many opportunities to make us bitter and angry, and we may retain the sharp edges that can cut and bleed others who touch us. Or, we may soften in time, our suffering having worn away those parts of ourselves we once held so true. There is a quality of suffering and meekness in the visages of icons, but only if the iconographer herself has experienced deep pain and suffering can her hand know how to transmit these qualities into the icon itself. In a sense one is able to tap into the cosmic heart which feels and bleeds with suffering of others throughout all of time. The bitter and angry isolate themselves against the world, the meek enter a communion with it.

Praise God, that at end of my life I may be as this beautiful little cup, simple, empty and having suffered many repairs, still a cup open to holding the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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The Face of an Icon Looks Back at Me

another Michael...

another Michael…

Perhaps it is only another example of how we create our own reality that every icon we paint somehow ends up mirroring our own face.  Our hand is and is not our own in the painting, but has its own mind.  This is of endless comfort and confusion to me.  The final result is familiar, but of course, we have painted ourselves into it.  Is this what God saw when the world was finished?  Is this not what we report — that the beauty of God is visible everywhere?  And, as we were created in her image, can we not  do the same?  Is this not what is meant by “putting ourselves into our work” and is it not the highest grace we can bestow on a work by doing so?  

Beginning iconographers never intend to alter a prototype, yet inevitably each member in a class completes an icon that is very different from every other one.  Often because of skill, but just as often because of what we see; and we see ourselves in everything  as we look at in the world.  We feel ugly, we see ugliness.  We feel gentle, we see gentleness.  In this sense the world–and the icon informs of our place in the world, and whether we need to travel another path.

We practice seeing, for as we all know, viewing is not seeing.  Once again, it is the tiniest, almost imperceptible change that makes the biggest difference in the end.  Examples are all around us.  A millimeter of error in a calculated trajectory will control whether a satellite draws near to a planet or misses it altogether.  There are even such calculations that tell us whether a human face is beautiful, or veers off the path into homeliness. Architects can explain the gravity of such calculations to you, and whether a beam of steel will support a multi-ton weight or come toppling down.

And so it is embedded code in our world that we must learn to see in order to understand the meaning of true beauty, and perhaps come to believe that some of it exists even in us, where once we thought none existed.  By learning to see the world, we may come to know ourselves.

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Relativity Theory…As I Speed Up, My Work Slows Down

Einstein was such a brain!  His thought experiments  showed  that time begins to slow down as the one moving increases her speed.  This is called time dilation.  As I work on my icons I have gone into a relativity vortex.  This realization struck as I prepared my icons to be exhibited in a sacred art show.

With 95% of my icon completed, I began the final preparations.   This included the varnishing, touching up, and addition of attribution information and hanging hardware on the back. Having spent about 100 hours painting the icon, I assumed these last “housekeeping” tasks would be a snap, maybe several hours at best.  But as several hours led to several more, I realized I had made a critical error in judgment, and I tried to work more quickly in an effort to finish.  As the hours increased, so did the amount of work yet unfinished.  In touching up lines, I created new errors needing even more touching up.  A deadline was rapidly approaching, yet it seemed I was no nearer to completion. Gilding repairs refused to approach completion.  Frustration reigned supreme.  I was not in the flow.

Up until recently, I had not concerned myself with the business of art. Dilettante that I was, I believed the art and craft of the icon painting was paramount.  But slowly the idea and value of sharing my work began to coalesce in my mind.  And with it came a new list of tasks to make it so. Instead of hastily attempting these final tasks, I needed to approach them as part of the process.  I needed to S..L..O..W down.  As I began to do this, the rate of creating new errors also slowed, time sped up — these vectors all finally converging on a zero point that had thus-far eluded me.

Who knew ?  —  the laws of physics had something to teach me about the art of iconography.



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“The Highest Goal of Life is to Inquire and Create”

I always find it a pleasure to listen to some of the smartest people I know in their wisdom years, to find what they have learned over the course of a life well lived.  As a former educator, I was especially interested to hear the thoughts of Noam Chomsky.

A true education, Chomsky suggests, opens a door to human intellectual freedom and creative autonomy.

“… Chomsky defines his view of education in an Enlightenment sense, in which the “highest goal in life is to inquire and create. The purpose of education from that point of view is just to help people to learn on their own. It’s you the learner who is going to achieve in the course of education and it’s really up to you to determine how you’re going to master and use it.”

“An essential part of this kind of education is fostering the impulse to challenge authority, think critically, and create alternatives to well-worn models. This is the pedagogy I ended up adopting, and as a college instructor in the humanities, it’s one I rarely have to justify.”


Ah…the road less traveled can be a weary road indeed. I have been on that road.  Since ordinary life is not part of a socratic dialogue, this thinking critically, this challenging authority is not without its price. Take Edward Snowden, for example.  Or Galileo.  No one said it would be easy.  Or it would be pleasant.  It would just be smart, in the truest sense of the word. It would just be true. Whether in the classroom or in the workplace, the world is not made to welcome divergent thinkers — that is, people who use their own minds to draw their own conclusions or create new ways of doing.  Most who live this way should prepare for rejection in one sense or another.  Often, being a critical thinker IS NOT SAFE. It doesn’t make you a yes man or woman.  You do not live life pandering to mediocrity. Finding your tribe is not easy.  Most tribes contain members who put their tails down between their legs and blindly follow the leader.  Smart, well educated people find it difficult belonging to these tribes.  They often need to make a choice between bringing home a paycheck and staying true to themselves.  Usually the paycheck wins.  Perhaps this is why we have so many angry people in our world today. College professors have taught us to think critically, but they haven’t taught us how to live in a world that will reject us for doing so. Because they don’t know the answer.  It’s their little secret until we enter the workplace and hit that wall that is everyone’s destiny.

Perhaps what Noam is tying to tell us is that we should lead dual track lives. While we are doing the the safe thing and bringing home a paycheck, we should carry on our life of the mind by continuing with independent inquiry, learning and creation.  Largely, we are creating our new selves and the new value we bring to the world we live in.  Thanks, Noam.



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Getting Icons Ready for Showing

Sigh….One might think that after putting in hundreds of hours on a 16 by 24 icon board that, at last! one were finished, but alas, one would be wrong.  I learned this the hard way this past week when I set to work to prepare my work to be shown after a glorious 2 and a half year stint doing nothing but painting (and board making!  (An iconographer’s work is never done…).  Eight days later — I am still at it, but getting ready to round the bend, in more ways than one.  I have 20 or so icons and am, at last, prepared to send them out into the world to do what they are intended to do, lead people to prayer.  For the longest time, this was an idea I strongly resisted, going so far as to post exorbitantly high prices on them in the hopes that they would remain unsold and I could keep them forever.  I finally made the realization all artists must; that in order to keep producing art they must be willing to sell art to sustain their habit.  Iconography must be, without a doubt the most expensive two dimensional form of art to create if one uses the traditional mineral and organic natural pigments, not to mention 22-24kt gold for gilding of halos and backgrounds.  Even before picking up a paintbrush, one has spent $100 or more for a board.  So, sigh…here I am.  I thought you might like to see what one needs to do to show a piece, and you’re thinking, “What in the world could there be?  Sign it and you’re done.”  But you’d be wrong.  Stay tuned.

So today I finished, I think, a piece I have worked on since the end of April on a daily basis. Finished painting, I mean.  Now I will show you what I need to do in order to make my icon ready to show.  Lots of dings and slips happen over the course of 40 days, and here are a few of them:

CIMG6646 CIMG6647

Above in the first picture you can see the edge of the paint has been damaged. I had placed this 16 x 24 board upright to dry on the floor when the painted bottom edge has not yet cured.  It needs to be sanded and refinished.  The second photo shows paint that has bled under tape and smudged onto the background color. Here some careful sanding alone should so the trick. Sometimes the framing of the board itself needs repair in that it has a crack or that the there is a separation of the fabric from the board itself. This requires the more extensive repairs of using a syringe to insert glue to reattach the fabric, and plaster cement to cover the repair.  

Next it’s on to the back for hanging hardware and attribution. Iconographers do not sign an icon.  We believe that the work does not come from us, it comes through us from God. And so the recommended wording is “written by the hand of iconographer…”   CIMG6653

I have created labels that allow me to insert the name of the icon as well as the month and year the icon was painted.  Although the labels are adhesive, I also apply a layer of contact  paper to protect the label and further secure it  to the wood.   I created a      stamp from a block of wood and a pre-cut wooden cross purchased at Michael’s. This was stamped over the attribution label with permanent ink.  CIMG6658

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, hanging hardware is affixed to the back of the icon. Traditionally, icons were placed on shelves in eastern facing icon corners of homes.  But today, some  wish to hang their icons. Because the icons are made of birch plywood, they are heavy, and so most require two pieces of hardware which suspend a wire that both supports the icon and allows it to be balanced on any wall.  I am very proud to say I use recycled materials to create this hanging hardware — the tabs from soda cans!


As one can imagine, the most important part of attaching this hardware is carefully measuring so that both tabs are evenly attached and the wire is correctly taut to hang the board.  The electric drill is a phenomenal help to me for putting the screws into the board so they are secure.  Even the size of the screws is important; if they are too long for the depth of the board the board will crack, the head of the screw must be large to cover the opening in the tab. It is easier to drill in the screws if you first tap them in with a hammer to create a depression in which they sit when you begin to drill.  Finally the back is finished!     CIMG6660  But just when I thought this piece was complete I saw that the faces could use one more wash of limonite…                    CIMG6661

Now, all I have to do is wait 6 months for the paint to cure so I can varnish the icon, and it will be ready at last for its new home. Kyrie eleison.

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An Iconographer’s Studio

All my life I have waited to be an artist.  That is, a practicing artist. Quietly, while I was busy with the stuff of life I studied, went to museums, read books.  Ripened…so to speak. Fortunately for me I did not rot on the vine (LOL!) and now have the opportunity to paint full-time. With my children gone, ample space opened for me to choose a room and to begin my work.  I had the perfect place in mind.  A small room with an enormous window facing my garden and a sunny woods was waiting just for me. CIMG6618 CIMG6606 This room had previously served as an errant smallish guest bedroom-sewing-storage room. In other words, it had not been of much use to anyone all these years.  I quickly found an old 4×8 tabletop and some saw horses to sit facing this sunny window, and my studio was born!  The light, the light. Most important.  For looking.  For thinking.  For praying.  For appreciating.  For listening to birds, for looking at snow, for happiness at being part of God’s beautiful world.  The clouds and the rain have a loving and soothing presence in this room.  Even at night, this room is always filled with light — 2 Ott lights and 3 regular lights trained on the icon itself, and one for general ambient light!  Odds and ends began to find their way into this room as storage and  display areas.  CIMG6598                  


Yard sale finds and thrift stores were especially helpful for my needs. Bookcases for icon books and articles. And more supplies. Space for  tracings of icons I have completed.  Even a spice rack to store extra pigment.CIMG6597And, I was off.  I knew that my progress would largely depend on developing an eye. This would be accomplished by  studying  those icons which were considered to be the best. I recognized that fresh eyes were needed to identify flaws and to make needed corrections; so I regularly left my work and returned an hour or so later to work again for several hours.  In this way I sometimes put in 16 hour days.   I collected and studied and tried to imitate.  I lovingly painted full-time.  I began to collect  expensive supplies by asking for them as birthday and Christmas presents. I learned to find iconographer’s tools in unexpected places.  Tiny brushes and brush rests that manicurists use for their tools could be purchased for one tenth the price of those in fine art catalogs. Bottle caps could be used as disposable palette cups. CIMG6621  CIMG6604          Old jars to clean brushes, of course.  Soap slivers for cleaning brushes (no need to buy artist brush soap!). The oddest tool I have found is a Chinese ear pick (that has a little cup at one end and is used to scrape out ear wax!) which I use as a micro palette knife, just right for the few grains of alizarin one sometimes needs. And then there is the hematite burnisher to be had, two for a dollar! in the dollar store.  These are sold in the toy department as magnetic “rattlesnake eggs!!!!” Hematitle burnishers cost $60 or more and you may need several!  The world is wonderful, isn’t it?  I have purchased pigments directly from Moscow and Finland where the prices are very much lower.

As time went on, and I began to collect the icons I had completed, my husband installed some shelving along 3 of my walls that surround me.  All these eyes watch me as I have watched them. They are my companions, and lend a great sense of peace here.   CIMG6594 CIMG6600         

I always play music softly as I paint.  Usually chant of some sort: russian orthodox, french chant…but there are other “celestial” songs as well…Tavener, Arvo Part, Einaldi and others.  I find these on Pinterest, and add them to my playlists on YouTube. From there I play them on my iPad with a speaker.  Incense from Mt. Athos drifts through the air.  And all is well.

So now you have visited my studio, and I hope you have a small impression of the love I have for my work and the way with which it is created.  I hope to spend the rest of my life this way.

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Drawing (and painting!) on the Right Side of the Brain

Years ago there was a book published called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”.  It posited, no–reported that persons with no artistic bent could replicate an image were they to copy it while viewing it upside down. This process disconnects the over-thinker left brain and engages the right brain. Upside down the brain does not identify the object being copied as a recognized whole, as pictorial, and so the brain switches on its analytic left brain to just copy lines and curves rather than an identifiable image one would see looking at the image right-side up.  I use this technique regularly in my painting, usually in the painting of faces.  Any icon painter, or any artist will tell you that faces are the most challenging to complete so that they appear realistic. In the case of icon painting where one works with a prototype that has been condensed to a line drawing, the painter’s task is to then recreate the realistic image from only those spartan lines  giving the data for recreating this complex image.  One can work for days on only the face, only to scrape off one’s work to begin again because something is not quite right. Taking regular breaks from the painting helps one to identify areas needing shadows, larger eyes, a more sculpted mouth.  But when all else fails, I turn the prototype and the painting I am working on upside down.

 Point of view is everything.       .CIMG6593 (2)

Any professor of literature will tell you that.  And eventually a trained artist begins to see that as well.  It is a law of the universe that one must follow; a sort of microcosmic, quantum view of the minutiae that one must get right to remain true to an image.  Einstein said “God is in the details”, and Einstein was right.  Viewing a prototype upside down is now a technique I employ regularly when I paint an icon.

Life teaches us the same lessons again and again.  The laws remain the same, regardless of discipline.  And life follows the same laws as well.  In this case, the law of opposites–the yin and the yang, the male and the female, the logic and the imagination.  All you have to do is welcome a new perspective.

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Artists and Craftspeople and Iconography

When I attended a beginner’s workshop in iconography I was taught that it was imperative to follow the old icons.  We used tracings of icons that have been “copied” hundreds of times across the centuries.  The teacher was an elderly orthodox Christian, almost militantly so.  I loved listening to the theologic metaphors embedded in the process (breathing onto the bole to make the gold adhere was like God breathing life into Adam and bringing life into his clay body).  I loved learning esoteric theology.  In fact, I loved everything about the class except for the rigidity shown toward doing or using anything “new”.  This included modern art materials like acrylic varnishes, or any originality in the painting itself.  This is no problem for a beginner, who, like every art student, learns by copying from the masters. But, as one proceeds through one’s 10,000 hours necessary to become really good, holes begin to develop in the “emperor’s clothes.”

Most icons which are copied are hundreds if not even more than a fifteen hundred years old.  If we adhere to the prototype, we are using only  the technology that was present in those days: a day when there existed no power tools, thermometers, arrays of pigments, copy machines or computers, beautifully crafted paintbrushes and the like.  In other words, if one is to truly adhere to the old ways, one should should be using none of these.

Byzantine icons flourished for over a thousand years very much unchanged, until the orthodox world began to be threatened with western sacred art that was being created in Europe, especially by the Italians, once transportation and exchange of ideas became commonplace between the two worlds.  It was then that the orthodox church decided to take steps to insure that only its canons were applied to the world of byzantine art.

Canon law is the tradition of canonical legislation, which governs Orthodox Church life. It touches on every area of Church life, including Ecclesiology, Liturgy, and Ethics. Although generally referred to as canon law, it is more correctly referred to in the Orthodox community as the tradition of the holy canons. This law, the canonical tradition, involves persons who are invested with authority (such as bishops) enabled with the means of creating, formulating, interpreting, executing, validating, amending and revoking these laws through synodical or conciliar action.*

In others words, the church took control of what was and was not considered to be byzantine art.  These cannons are upheld to this day.  The artist is not called an icon painter, she is called an icon writer.  This means signing the icon is verboten. You may indicate only on the back that “this icon has been written through the hand of…” Authorship is said to denote pride. Next, originality is strictly prohibited, for most. Following a prototype with fidelity is the order of the day. Craftspeople love control.  Rules for how to draw a straight line.  Following rules is  easy and requires no thought. And, there is a certain satisfaction in believing you are superior to those who color outside the lines.  Preening and pride. An unbecoming smugness.  You can be sure the Holy Spirit does not reside here.

God created man in His image.  But we do not all look alike.  We reflect God in all Her glory and variation.  For icons to depict the spiritually transfigured, they must be guided by the Holy Spirit, and she is a reflection of the wisdom, inclusiveness and love of God. The icon shines with that Spirit, the Spirit with which it was made.

 detail of the self-portrait of Ioannes Tohabi front of the Virgin … appealing for  intercession to the  Mother of God HagiosoritissParaklesis). Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery.***

The Orthodox church embraces many sacred arts, including music in its praise of God. Yet, it does not harness any other art the way it does iconography.  To do so would be to  limit the depth and breadth of all the hymns that have been written.  It would be like saying the choir could only perform the few hymns that had been created up until the mid 17th century, when the rules for recreating only existing prototypes were put into place.

Recently, there have been scholarly investigations into the authorship of ancient icons.  A particularly interesting example is that of a monk who added this epigram to the back of one of his icons:

the humble monk Ioannes

painted with desire these holy images

which he gave to the famous church

where he found everlasting grace.

O Child, accept maternal intercession

and grant full redemption from sins

to the pitiable old man who asks it.**

An interesting footnote regarding the epigrams of this monk is that they were written in Greek using dodecasyllabic meter.    This indicates that Ioannes was well-educated  and most probably spent long periods in Constantinople, the seat of Byzantium and the Eastern Orthodox church.  The icon bearing this epigram resides with the Sinai icons, and indicates his practice of “signature” to be contemporaneous in nature.

I have never been one to follow the rules.  God gave me a mind and an intellect with which to live in the world.  I like to use it.  I sign my icons.  I change a color or facial features if I sense the need to.  I plan on painting icons that have never been seen before, using scenes from the New Testament, or even modern day saints.  New does not have to mean wrong. It just means that people worship God in their own times and places with the gifts they are given. Monk Ioannes is fine company.

*, April 30, 2016

** The cited English translation of this epigram is by N. Trahoulia:”The Truth in Painting”, pp 272-273

***further reading may be found at  Lidova, Maria.  “The Artist’s Signature in Byzantium.  Six icons by Ioannes Tohabi Sinai Monastery (11th-12th century)”.

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