Iconography ministry brings new life to an ancient art

Kevin Kipper leads a demonstration at the monthly meeting for Saint Kateri's iconography ministry. Matt Fernandez/ The Signal
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When people want to learn about ancient art, they usually take a class or go to a museum. The members of the Saint Kateri Iconography Ministry learn by doing.

On the third Saturday of every month, the members of the iconography ministry gather in one of the church’s meeting rooms to share news, learn new techniques and to work on their own icons.

According to the iconography ministry leader Kevin Kipper, iconography is the art of writing or painting images of the saints or scenes from the Bible. The ministry began in 2011 with a one-off workshop. However, several of the students who took the workshop were highly interested in the art form and continued to meet on their own. Over time and after a few more annual workshops, the iconography group became an established stable ministry, which Kipper says is dedicated to educating the community and exploring the link between art and faith. 

Members of the ministry create their icons using traditional images and techniques that have been around for thousands of years. First, a church-approved template is copied onto a canvas. Then liquid clay is added to certain areas of the design, like a saint’s halo, treated and then 24 karat gold leaf is applied on top of the clay. Then, after several rounds of painting, using egg tempera paint that members create themselves, the icon is completed.

“This isn’t something you can do in one sitting and often times you’ll only get through one or two steps per meeting, so it can take 10 months to a year to write one icon,” Kipper said. “Each step has a spiritual meaning — for example, the gold represents God’s divine light and after we add the clay we breathe on it to both activate the adhesive in the clay and to represent God breathing life into man.”

Veteran iconographers Cathy Bower and Terry Kanowsky have been a part of the ministry for years and joined as a creative outlet. Both women marveled at the transformative processes involved in the art — for example, how a face initially painted green would have a normal flesh color by the end.

“It’s such a wonderful opportunity and it’s free,” said Bower, who is currently working on an icon of Saint Edith Stein. “When you’re creating the icon you feel like it’s so hard or you’ll never finish it, but when it’s done it’s such a good feeling.”

Terry Kanowsky joined the iconography ministry as a way to get more involved with the church and to find a creative outlet. Matt Fernandez/ The Signal

“Once I started I was immediately hooked and got sucked down the rabbit hole and bought all sorts of gear,” added Kanowsky. “I feel like I’m learning about whole new religion through doing iconography, since this is an art from Eastern Orthodox Catholicism. So I’m learning both in the artistic aspect and in the spiritual aspect.”

Cecily van Puyvelde attended her first meeting on Saturday after years of trying to find time to try it out. As a landscape and still life painter who works with pastel and acrylic paints, iconography was very different from her usual style.

“It was really neat to learn about the clay and tempera process, especially since it’s thousands of years old,” van Puyvelde said. “As artists we take everything that we perceive in the world and express it through our art, so I think there is a very clear connection between spirituality and artistic expression. I can’t wait to come back and finish my icon, and it’s of Saint Kateri, which makes it extra special.”

Kipper said that overall his favorite part of working on icons is the quiet introspection that comes with the art and he wants to see the art become more widespread within the Catholic community.

“In spite of how tedious it can be, I think that people enjoy the process of writing an icon because our lives are so busy and this forces people to just stop for a moment and be part of the prayerful process,” Kipper said. “I think that there should be support for iconography at the archdiocese level and there’s no reason why it should just be here at Saint Kateri. There’s a big need to connect with art and every parish and school that’s part of the archdiocese should have some support for the sacred arts.”

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