Yesterday was the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which celebrates the triumph of icons over the iconoclasts, reinstating them for use in the liturgical worship of the Church. As I watched dozens of children from three different Orthodox churches here in Memphis process around the nave at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church and heard the proclamation, “This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers,” I felt a strange mix of joy and sadness wash over me.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had a number of folks ask me if I’m still doing icons on commission. And just last week I had a request from a potential student for another icon workshop. I always answer these questions with a vague reply like, “I’m not really doing iconography any more,” or “I’m not leading workshops any more,” but I never give a more specific answer. Because it’s complicated. But today I want to write about it. Maybe it’s because I’m about to “take down” my icon studio, which covers the second floor landing above the den in our home, which I’m staging to put on the market soon, possibly by summer. (We’re looking for a house for this stage of our life—fewer bedrooms, larger entertaining area, and separate office/workspaces for my husband and me.)
So, here goes. First a little background on why I began studying iconography. (And here’s a link to an article I wrote that was published in First Things back in 2007: “Icons Will Save the World,” for those who want to read more.) In the mid 1990s I went through what I call the “nun phase” of my spiritual life. Having come out of a dark time, spiritually, I threw myself into a radical, ascetic lifestyle for about five years. It was my way of going to the desert, like my patron saint, Mary of Egypt. During those years I removed myself from secular life, spending as much time as possible reading spiritual literature, praying, visiting monasteries, going to Church every day, wearing a head covering, no makeup, plain clothes, and basically withdrawing from worldly activities as much as possible. Maybe some of that was helpful in healing the wounds from my dark years, but in retrospect, I’m not sure how authentic some of those practices were. I recently heard Father Thomas Hopko speak about the “Vices and Virtues,” and he warned about using religion as a vice. He spoke about the dangers of over-emersion in religious activities, including clergy in his concerns. He spoke about dealing with our own personal histories and bringing our whole selves to be healed. And although I think that’s what I was trying to do during those years, somehow I found myself still trying to please people, rather than God.
I have always wanted to write. And paint. I’ve been drawn to abstract art all my life, and to novels. But some of the more severe Orthodox spiritual literature warns against these activities, and so I felt uncomfortable pursing secular art and writing for most of my life. Even as I began to come out of my “nun phase,” in the late 1990s, I looked for a place to pursue my art that would be “approved.” And so I began to study iconography. Painting icons is called “writing” because you are writing the life of the saint who is portrayed in the icon (or of Christ or the Mother of God, etc.) but you are writing it with color rather than with words. I studied under Russians, Romanians, Greeks and Americans over a period of years, and then I began to do commissioned icons and to teach icon classes in my home studio and workshops at St. John Orthodox Church, my parish. (Read about one of those workshops here,here, here,and here.)
I painted over 40 icons during those years, and taught dozens of students in my workshops. I gave presentations on iconography at churches, college, and schools. And yes, there was great blessing in doing this. But I also began to realize that writing icons is so tied into my spiritual life that there were even times when I felt “blocked” from writing icons. My essay, “Blocked,” which addresses this, was a finalist in the 2007 Santa Fe Writers Project’s Literary Awards.
The more I moved back “towards center” in my personal, spiritual, and emotional/psychological life, the more I realized that I had backed into iconography, doing “the approved art” rather than what I really wanted to do. And so I began to experiment with abstract art a bit, and representational art using gouache (opaque water color) but quickly realized that I didn’t have the training for it. (In order to abstract something, you must first know how to paint it classically. Picasso and most of the other great abstract painters were first classical painters.) I did enjoy a few monthly gatherings with the “Mixed Bag Ladies,” who are all serious, trained artists, but welcomed me into the fold.
And so I returned to my love for writing, which had been there all along. I started by writing a novel, in 2006. (It’s in a drawer, needing much work.) Then I began to write essays. (8 have been published.) Then memoirs (two are in drawers) and finally another novel, which is in the works now. Then blogging (Pen and Palette plus two blogs where I guest post monthly). Then organizing writing conferences and workshops. And so I’ve come to realize that I can’t do both—write books and icons. And I’m really not in a place, spiritually, to continue to write icons. Traditionally this work has been done by monastics, who focus on fasting and prayer and the strict ascetic life that lends itself to the liturgical art that iconography is. While I’m thankful for everything I learned during those years of studying and sharing this spiritual art with others, it’s time for me to leave it to others. It’s time for me to clean out my icon studio, physically, and to mentally prepare the space that iconography has taken up in my heart for the words that I long to write and to publish. I still love icons. I say my morning and evening prayers before the icons in the corner of our dining room, and I venerate the icons when I worship at church. They will always be “windows to heaven” and an important part of my spiritual life.