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Self-taught iconographer writes ‘God’s story in pictures’

October 7, 2010

MECHANICSBURG, Penn.

For artist Jody Cole, painting is an act of prayer.

Under her brush, the faces of Jesus and the saints emerge with each layer of acrylic gouache, their flesh tones framed by rich reds, greens and blues. A bit of rubbed-on gold leaf halo adds a holy sheen.

Cole is a professional iconographer, who creates, or “writes,” the sacred images and instruments of meditative prayer usually associated with Eastern Orthodoxy.

The term “writing” is preferred to “painting” because, as Cole explained, “You’re writing God’s story in pictures.”

Cole is one of a relative handful of Americans who practice the art as a vocation. And as a Roman Catholic, she is one of an even smaller number of professional, self-taught iconographers who are not Orthodox.

“My everyday life is now more of a vocation than a job,” says Cole, who left her job as a computer programmer not long after she was introduced to iconography 15 years ago.

“The two most important things in my life, besides the people in my life, have been my faith and art, and to be able to have the two together and to express that every day, (it’s) no longer work.”

While there are no professional iconographer associations across the country, George O’Hanlon, executive director of the California-based Iconofile educational group estimates there are fewer than 100 professional icon painters in the United States. In contrast, Russia likely has several thousand professional iconographers, he said.

In the United States, O’Hanlon estimated three out of four are Orthodox, and most are immigrants or descendents of immigrants. More than half, he guessed, are laypeople.

While there has been a growing interest in icons beyond Orthodoxy, the primary U.S. market is in Orthodox churches and individuals. Virtually every Orthodox home has at least one icon to pray with.

An icon is far more than decorative art. The word “icon” means image, and “graphy” refers to writing. According iconographer Linette Martin’s book, Sacred Doorways: A Beginner’s Guide to Icons, iconography took root in the Byzantine Empire in the fourth century as a visual way of communicating Christian truths. Icons also make the people and events of Scripture and church history present for those who venerate icons.

While they’re usually constructed with paint on wooden panels, icons are also made with mosaics, textiles and metalwork.

Over the past 10 years, O’Hanlon has seen more Catholics and some Protestants embrace iconography. Both clergy and laypeople, including professional artists, attend Iconofile workshops around the country, which are often taught by iconographers from Russia or Greece.

He attributes the renewed interest to people who are “bereft of ritual” and are seeking “more of the mystical side of religion.”

Iconography was a natural fit for Cole, who majored in theater and art in college and painted as a hobby. She said icons also helped her to more fully experience the Catholicism she embraced as a young adult.

Her priest and spiritual director introduced her to iconography in 1995 through a workshop taught by iconographer Peter Pearson from New Hope, Penn. The priest encouraged her to attend, saying, “It might be a way to marry your journey with your talent.”

Cole was hooked immediately, although she struggled through her initial attempts at icon writing. She attended another Pearson workshop, eager to learn more.

Pearson, an Episcopal priest, said Cole's approach transcends her solid artistic technique.

“This really isn’t about art so much as it is about a ministry, and I think Jody gets that,” Pearson said.

Within a year, Cole cut back her work hours to part time in order to devote more time to her all-consuming passion. Six months later, she gave up the workaday world altogether to focus on her craft.

Cole has done commissioned work for several Catholic and Protestant churches in and around Harrisburg, PA, as well as for individuals. She has also written icons for, and taught, Orthodox individuals, which O’Hanlon says is rare.

“I sort of see myself as a bridge between the Eastern and Western churches,” Cole said.

In addition to Cole’s workshops and retreats, which draw both clergy and laypeople, she gives talks about the history, symbolism and techniques of iconography.

Traditionally, iconographers do not to sign their work. Sometimes contemporary artists will sign their pieces, but almost always on the back, O’Hanlon said. Cole doesn’t sign her pieces unless asked because for her, iconography is a journey of “completely dying to self” for the glory of God, she said.

“I think a lot of artists put pressure on themselves ... to create this way or that way,” she said. “In iconography, you can just sit and let the (Holy) Spirit move within you and join in the creative spirit of God, and it’s not about you anymore. It’s not your work. It’s the work of the Spirit.”

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