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April 16, 2017

Icon class makes ancient art form available to everyone

By Joyce Duriga

Editor

Joe Malham teaches an icon class at St Gregory the Great on March 3. The classes started 15 years ago as part of the parish's Artists in Residence program. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Deb Strahan uses a stylus to etch the outline of her image into the wood panel on March 3. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Various icon works are displayed in Malham's studio on the top floor of the former parish convent at St Gregory the Great. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Icons on display in Malham's studio. What makes an icon an icon? “Icons differ from all other art because there is an absence of perspective,” Malham says. “There’s an absence of a third dimension. Use of gold; highly stylized figures to tell a theological reality by showing what is inside radiating out as opposed to the narrative of the outside looking inward.” (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Anthony Aquinaldo etches in the outline of his image during an icon class at St Gregory the Great on March 3. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Ornate vestments hang alongside icons in Malham's studio. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Jamie Blanke, a parishioner at St. Gregory the Great, blows on the paint to dry it during the March 3 class. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

I found a new item for my Catholic bucket list — an icon painting class at St. Gregory the Great Church, 5545 N. Paulina St.

For 15 years, as part of the parish’s Artists in Residence program, iconographer Joe Malham has offered classes twice a year for adults and once for children. He hosts them in the loft space he uses as a studio in the former parish convent. Participants pay only for supplies and enter into a two-and-a-half-day retreat of sorts.

The parish evangelizes through the arts with the Artists in Residence program. Besides Malham, the other artists are Patrick Godon, who leads the International Chamber Artists, and the Quest Theatre Ensemble,

All of the artists are self-sufficient financially.

Joe invited me to take the class March 3-5 and I was definitely skeptical of my skills but he assured me I didn’t need skill.

Twelve people took the class and not all were Catholic. Joe traditionally holds the class during the beginning of Lent or Advent to kick off the liturgical seasons. Participants employ traditional methods of painting, or writing the icon as it’s called, by adding layer upon layer of paint, and the image emerges. Our image was of Jesus and John, the “beloved disciple.”

We started off with Joe giving us wood panels about the size of an 8 ½-by-11-inch piece of paper. The panels were covered with about 15 coats of gesso, a type of glue that holds the paint and is soft enough to allow the person to etch the outline of the image into the board using a stylus.

“It’s a great material but also spiritually we use it because of the wood of the cross. Wood is not only durable but found aplenty in almost any place on the face of the earth,” Joe said.

As soon as participants finish tracing the outline onto the board through carbon paper, the drawing becomes theirs, Joe said.

“Because up until that point the only thing you have in front of you is a blank panel and a photocopy of an icon created by someone else,” he said.

A person’s strokes, pressure on the board, everything makes their drawing immediately different from both the original and anyone else’s.

“It’s at that point that literally your hand changes the nature of the relationship,” he said.

Next we used a stylus to go over the lines and etched them into the panel. After that we began applying the numerous coats of paint that would make our icons.

What makes an icon an icon?

“Icons differ from all other art because there is an absence of perspective,” Joe told me. “There’s an absence of a third dimension. Use of gold; highly stylized figures to tell a theological reality by showing what is inside radiating out as opposed to the narrative of the outside looking inward.”

To my surprise, halfway through the second day I started to like my creation. My lines weren’t as straight or defined as other people’s, and Jesus’ and John’s hands were dreadful, but when you look at the whole of my icon it fits together — perfectly imperfect.

Throughout the three days, we would frequently go into a “zen-like” mode when working on our icons. No one talked, and when I looked around the room I saw intent looks on everyone’s faces as they dipped their brushes in the paint and worked.

It wasn’t silent the whole time. In fact often we all broke out in laughter at something someone said. We laughed often on Saturday afternoon as we attempted the lines on the faces of Jesus and John. Joe said that how well a person drew the lines on the faces could turn a perfectly good icon into one that resembled Groucho Marx. For my part, Jesus’ facial hair resembled a Fu Manchu mustache. I quickly painted over it and tried again.

After it’s all over, Joe keeps the icons to glaze them. The class gathers during a weekend Mass at a later date to have the icons blessed in front of the parish.

A few people had taken the class before. Deb Strahan, who belongs to the Jesus People in Uptown, is a veteran icon writer. She told the class she became interested in them in an act of childhood disobedience when her “good Methodist mother” told her not to look at icons because it was idol worship.

“It quiets me and slows me down,” she told me. “It’s something that’s very beneficial to my soul.”

How could it not be, she said, because you’re staring at the face of Christ for hours as you paint him.

Malham’s latest book, “Drawing Closer to Christ: A Self-Guided Icon Retreat,” will soon be released by Ave Maria Press, www.avemariapress.com.