Icon-o-classic

Art teacher learns the beauty of painting traditional icons
September 30, 2005

What do you do when God calls you to create an artform you don’t like and don’t know how to make? If you’re Suzanne Schleck, you do it anyway -- and discover a whole new calling.

“It started from a conversation I had with the rector of my church, who was asking about the interior of our parish church and wondering about making it feel like more of a holy space,” recounts Schleck, 59, who attends Christ Church, Tom’s River, N.J. She blurted out: It needs an icon above the altar.

“Within 24 hours, the conviction grew in me that I was supposed to do that. I sort of fought that. I was saying, internally, `I don’t like icons. I think they’re ugly.’ ... I could almost hear God laughing.”

That week, Episcopal Life (then The Episcopalian) ran a centerfold story on icons with a sidebar about the Rev. John Walsted, a Staten Island, N.Y., priest who painted them. When Schleck contacted him, Walsted said he didn’t have time to teach her but invited her to see his work. When she visited, he sat her down, gave her verbal instructions on painting an icon and assigned her homework, “as if he had completely forgotten that he couldn’t take me on.” “Obviously, the Holy Spirit was working in this,” Schleck says. “I started studying with him and still see him.”

That was 1989. Nine years later, she thought she had learned enough to tackle her initial idea. She painted the traditional Orthodox icon hanging over Christ Church’s altar. Called a deisis, it shows the resurrected Christ on a throne, flanked by Mary and John the Baptist in intercession for the world.

An elementary-school art teacher, Schleck studied with Walsted for years -- for free. “He always said this was something that needed to be passed along.” She also attended workshops with other iconographers. Today, Schleck not only attends workshops, but also teaches them. She led one of Kanuga Conferences’ twice-yearly iconography workshops in February and will teach another one there in February 2006.

She doesn’t consider icons ugly anymore, either. “I just feel so blessed to be able to do this,” she says. “And the interesting thing was, it was just very obvious that this was something that I was called to do because it all just came easily.”

This modern iconographer continues an ancient tradition. “Icon” comes from the Greek word meaning “image,” she says. “What [icons] have come to mean are images of saints or of Christ or of Mary or scenes from the Gospels.”

“Icons actually are copied,” she notes. “That again goes back to the original idea that the icon is the image of God made visible, and the original prototypes of those images were established in the early eras of the church. ... Iconographers are not free to use their imaginations and say, `Hmmm, I think Jesus would look better with this color of hair.’

“There is obviously a difference in each individual’s icon because your individual abilities and gifts will show up on the painted surface, but there are certain rules that are actually called canons that have to be worked within.”

“One of the reasons that icons are made of the saints is because they project the image of God in some way,” Schleck says. “The reason icons can be made at all is because God made himself visible in Jesus Christ.”

While some early icons were carved into pieces of precious stone or created in frescoes or mosaics, she says, “nowadays when you speak of an icon, it would probably be a painted panel.” Orthodox churches consider icons another form of the gospel. People often refer to iconographers as “writing” icons, although Schleck prefers to say she paints them. “We are a sacramental people, and the body is important, and the things that are real, that you can touch, are important, and the reality is, we’re painting.”

Schleck mixes ground pigment with egg yolk to create egg-tempura paints, which she applies to a wooden surface covered with gesso to make it smooth. With the “dry-brush technique,” which she learned first, she removes most of the wetness from the brush and paints in layers. “You can do five or six layers of a color to get the tone that you want.” She also employs the “horizontal floating technique,” in which she generally applies one layer of paint per color.

“Painting in egg tempura is a matter of layering colors, whichever method you’re using,” she says. “You work from dark to light.” You begin with a “dark, dense layer for the skin, for everything,” she explains. “Especially for the face, it’s almost a muddy color that’s flat. Then on top of that, you start adding layers of white. It’s almost like building up the features. The areas of light get smaller and smaller as you get lighter and lighter. I think that’s part of what gives icons their unique look. It’s almost like they’re glowing from within.”

It’s definitely a spiritual experience, she says. “You get a little piece of God’s experience any time you do something creative.” Watching the face emerge from the darkness of one of her works-in-progress, she has wondered: “Is this how God feels as we start turning towards him and adding layers of light to our beings?”

A collection of Schleck’s icons may be seen at http://www.walstedicons.com/.

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