MOUNT ANGEL — Students of iconography will gather here June 23 - July 1 to pray, study and practice the sacred art form. This year, as the Iconographic Arts Institute marks three decades since its founding, it also will celebrate a new certificate in iconographic studies based on the 12-level curriculum the Institute uses.
Kathy Sievers, who with Mary Katsilometes Reinbold wrote the curriculum, says the program is the only one of its kind in the world. A few universities in Europe and one in the United States offer three- and four-year programs, but the Institute here encourages students to proceed at their own pace to move through levels of proficiency.
“In our institute, you attend multiple sessions over a period of years, take what you learn home with you and progress at your own rate,” Sievers says. “One of our students completed the first four or five levels in one year. So it’s possible to move quickly, and we make sure students are getting the spiritual grounding as they go.”
An exhibit of icons produced by students of the institute will take place June 3-29 in the Mount Angel Abbey Library. Icons by iconographers who have completed requirements of the 12-level curriculum and will receive their certification during the institute. Other student work also will be included.
Creating icons is as much a spiritual exercise as an artistic one, according to Sievers. Icons proclaim the Gospel and present the mysteries of salvation history. Both the creator and the faithful who meditate on the icon gain insight and inspiration from the event depicted. Icons are said to be “written,” not painted, and those called to create them are ministering to the people of God, according to Sievers.
One of those called to iconography is Michele Cale, who enjoyed a successful career as a pharmacist at Oregon Health and Science University. As long ago as when she was pursuing her degree in pharmacy, she had a nagging desire to paint, she says. But widowed and a single mother supporting a family, she thought pursuing art wasn’t practical. Then a family crisis intervened.
“My son was diagnosed with a brain tumor,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to get through this?’ I decided to paint my way through it.”
She studied art one year at Portland State University, but didn’t find it satisfying. She feels the Holy Spirit had other ideas. “Everywhere I looked I saw icons, but I wasn’t sure. I prayed, ‘Lord, do you really want me to do this?’”
One day while at meal at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey, she encountered two women conversing about writing icons and their enthusiasm moved her. “I said, ‘Okay Lord, I’ll do this thing, but I’m not going to like it.’”
She found she was wrong. She enrolled in the institute and went to work, rising daily at 4 a.m. to draw. She joins other aspiring iconographers at the institute annually, and finds it “the most interesting week of my life. We all get so excited.”
With the renewal of interest in the icon worldwide, imitations abound, but relatively few artists adhere to the authentic methodology. Says Sievers: “I’ve travelled quite a bit in Europe, in Russia, the Balkans, and viewed all kinds of iconography, met instructors, and our program fits in the authentic tradition. There are other programs, but as for the certificate, ours is the first to formalize it because we believe quality is important.”
The 12 steps cover the traditional elements of posture and style seen in authentic icons. For example, Holy Face, standing frontal figure, seated full figure and multiple figure icons. Students must demonstrate an understanding of iconographers as theologians and work with a spiritual director. They must pray with icons and teach others to appreciate their symbolic value and pray with them.
Although the program is rigorous for those seeking a certificate, students of all skill levels can and do attend the annual institute. “Many people come with no art background, but they will walk away with a blessed icon they produced, and are proud of it and moved by the experience.”