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
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.
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.
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.
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.