Yes, writing; not painting. This was a distinction that was clarified in the early minutes of the Icon Writing Workshop in which I participated this past weekend. We learned that… “…everything involved in the writing of a liturgical icon has spiritual meaning tied to Scripture and reveals different levels of manifestation of God's Presence within the iconographer.”
Being an impatient sort myself, I won’t make you wait any longer before I reveal my finished icon:
This was my first ever effort at writing an icon, and if you’ll pardon my lack of humility, I’m pretty proud of it. I know it isn’t perfect, but neither am I.
My teacher’s name is Joe. I’ve known Joe for a couple years now. I first met him at a birthday party for our mutual friend, Tim. That night is memorable as one in which a group of folks who barely knew one another laughed themselves to the point of tears on several occasions. Who would have guessed that Joe was a skilled (and quite well known) iconographer as well as a gifted teacher?
The workshop began on a Friday night with a couple hours of background info and a chance to get our feet wet by applying a little bit of paint to our boards. We resumed our work on Saturday morning at 9am. Throughout the day, we were introduced to a number of techniques and learned when to use them. At some point in the day, a transformation (dare I say a transfiguration?) took place.
Although we were all working on producing a copy of the same icon, Saint Michael the Archangel, there were subtle differences from individual to individual. My first Rubicon was painting the eyes. A prayed aloud to not let Saint Michael look like Bart Simpson.
While there were many sets of eyes painted by my colleagues that were far superior artistically to mine, I was comfortable that the eyes I had painted were right for my icon.
Having successfully negotiated that hurdle, I relaxed a bit as I added color to the wings and the robe. In order to give more of a sense of life to the icon, it was necessary to add some shading to the face and hands. It was then that I became entranced by my icon. Despite there being 11 other people in the room, I felt alone and in a prayerful place with my icon. I was working on shading the right hand.
It was a delicate hand and graceful, too. I still get goosebumps when I remember working on capturing the correct shading on that hand. Saint Michael was speaking to me but not in words. I was content to work slowly on this small section of the icon to get it just right. In those moments, the icon became my muse both in the sense of spurring me artistically, but also spiritually.
My mind turned to all those people over the centuries who have written icons and imagining how they too had been affected by their work. I simply smiled as I felt I had joined a communion of artists. In a couple weeks, the church that sponsored the workshop will be featuring our work at the 11:30am mass. The head priest will be present to bless our icons. How cool!
I don’t think this will be my last icon. Joe is talking about having an Advanced Icon Writing Workshop. But even if he doesn’t, I think I know how to get started. I’ve gained confidence in my ability to do this. But most of all, I look forward to continuing a centuries old tradition and communicating with my own personal representation of the holy.