Weekly gatherings yield icons, ‘windows into heaven’

Connie Abboud strives for perfection, a concept, itself, that, is flawed.

The saints could tell her that, for even they weren’t perfect when they walked the Earth. So how can Abboud ever hope to perfect their halos?

“But I’m a perfectionist,” she said.

She’s also human, and humans are imperfect. It’s something of which she has to remind herself when sitting at Ginnie Bolan’s table, a life lesson learned through the weekly spiritual exercise of iconography.

That’s the word for painting icons, in this case Byzantine icons of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Many people will recognize them upon sight. They’re flat images of Christian figures — saints — most times painted in egg tempera with surfaces that are as smooth as glass.

They’re also considered sacred. So, while perfection isn’t required in the creative process, reverence is.

And everyone will have a chance to see these icons in the exhibit, Byzantine Icons — A Window Into Heaven, on Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 25-27, at the Burden Center.

They probably won’t notice that the gold paint in the halos circling the heads of Abboud’s angels isn’t quite perfect. They’ll only see the beauty of the icon, as they will when looking at Bolin’s work.

And that of Michele Deshotels, Barbara Laudun and Ann Davenport. They sat at Bolin’s dining room table on this particular Friday, too.

“But we have some missing today,” Bolin said

True. The group also includes Marina Gentili, Augusta Waggenspack, Margaret Blades and the Rev. Donald Blanchard.

Blanchard is a retired Catholic pirest.

“He comes in here and paints with the rest of us,” Bolin said.

“And we show him no mercy,” Laudun added.

This set off a round of laughter, which is part of this weekly gathering. Fridays at Bolin’s house begin with a prayer at 9 a.m.,then the iconographers break for lunch at noon.

After that, it’s back to work until at least 4 p.m.

And along the way, they share stories about their lives, fellowship and learn spiritual lessons from the very icons they’re painting.

This is how Abboud came to grips with her perfectionism.

“We talked about it,” Bolin said. “They halos will never be perfect, because we’re not perfect.”

They’re human, after all, and humans are imperfect. It’s one of the lessons in Christianity; it’s why Christians seek God’s forgiveness.

That changes once one enters Heaven, where everything is perfect. It’s where the saints depicted in the icons live, where their halos truly are perfect. But here on earth, human iconographers simply must do their best. That’s how it’s been for centuries in a medium where very little has changed. There has always been very little room for artistic license when painting icons of Eastern Orthodoxy and the early Medieval West. Almost everything within the image is symbolic.

All figures have halos and consistent facial features and expressions. Many hold attributes personal to them and use few conventional poses.

Color also plays a important role. For instance, gold represents the radiance of Heaven. Red represents divine life, and blue is the color of human life.

And white is the uncreated light, or divine energies, of God used only for Christ’s resurrection and transfiguration.

Again, Byzantine icons are sacred paintings. The subjects are dimensionally flat, having width and height, but lacking depth. The “third” dimension is spiritual, as it goes beyond what the eye can see.

This is why they’re called windows into Heaven.

“Even the backgrounds mean something,” Bolin said. “We can’t change them, though they’ll turn out a little different, because every artist is different.”

That’s another simple life lesson learned each Friday at Bolin’s table, a gathering that’s been happening since at least before 2005.

But the iconographers’ history really begins with Waggenspack, who was inspired by an afternoon coffee talk at the Cathedral of St. Joseph.

“It was called, ‘Writing Icons,’” Bolin said. “And she got me involved. We went to St. Joseph Abbey in Covington to learn icon painting, I’ve been doing this since 2001, and I know Augusta had been painting icons for two years before that. Then Father Young at the Cathedral asked us to do an icon workshop.”

“I went to their first workshop,” Davenport added.

Now they all meet at Bolin’s house.

“The Cathedral used to set up a room for us, but it was just easier to meet here,” Bolin said. “We have only a certain number in our group, and we’ve lost a few along the way.”

New members also have filled in the gaps. Blanchard is one of the newer members. He will be exhibiting a photographic essay of the step-by-step process of his painting of the icon, “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” at the exhibit.

Other group members have picked out favorites to display. Some of the icons will be for sale with all proceeds benefiting the Burden Horticulture Society.

“But we don’t usually sell them,” Bolin said. “I usually give mine away to people who are special to me. I’ve created an icon for each of my children.”

She’ll later lead the way to one of the bedrooms in her house to show groupings of icons representing each saint for which her children are named.

Other icons that she’s created also hang throughout her home.

“I just don’t sell them,” Bolin said. “But we thought about it, and if the sales can benefit the horticulture society, that would be something good.”

Now, not all of the iconographers are Catholic. There are some Episcopalians in the group. In fact, Laudun was a Christian Scientist before joining the Episcopal church.

“You don’t have to be Catholic to be an iconographer,” Bolin said.

But you do have to take the process seriously. There are rules, and again, there isn’t much room for change in this practice.

This is OK for this group, since most of its members also are painters and can express their individuality in their own work.

But iconography is stringent. Images aren’t to be recreated but transferred onto a specially prepared surface on wood and painted exactly as the original image — or as close as possible.

And though egg tempera is traditional, this group uses a special acrylic paint that produces the same effect.

The acrylic paint, like the tempera, is thin, and layers upon layers must be applied to achieve the icon’s thick, rich colors.

“And the surface of the ideal icon should be as smooth as possible,” Bolin said.

Which is where Abboud feels she falls short in painting the halos. The more she applies the gold paint, the less smooth the surface seems. And trying to smooth it out only amplifies the problem.

“And I want it to be perfect,” Abboud said.

But it never will be. She is a human, after all, living on an imperfect Earth and getting a glimpse of the possibilities through her own window into Heaven.