How Learning about Clarity Changed my Approach to Painting Orthodox Icons

It is the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and I am getting on an airplane. My husband is sick with worry about me. I assure him it’s the safest possible day to fly: security is sure to be tight. In line at security were a couple of older ladies who hadn’t flown in over ten years. I find myself explaining to them that they need to remove their shoes now. The guard tells me to skip past the new full body scanner, and I feel like I’ve won the lottery. To alleviate my husband’s nervousness, I turn my phone on between flights and send him cheerful texts: “Just landed in Charlotte!” and “Boarding the next one!” and “They have rocking chairs in the airport!!” To his relief, eventually I land in Ashville and take a car ride to Maggie Valley from a friendly stranger sent out to find me.

Maggie Valley is a funny little town, mostly trees and motorcycles from what I can see. The lush green landscape is exotic to me, a California girl. We are staying in a humbly furnished retreat center, and we are learning and painting all day and long into the night for five and a half days. We start by hearing a lecture about the history of the icon and its influence in contemporary art, as well as the traditions and rules that developed in response to the persecution of icons and their makers in the 9th century. Already I’m breathing a sigh of relief. No weird stuff. I had been to classes before where I’d hear lectures on all kinds of mysticism and elaborate theories for hours and hours….and not very much useful instruction on how to paint. But here in the Smokies, with the constant drone of motorcycles as the background soundtrack, I am about to get my mind blown.

Smoky Mountains Maggie Valley North Carolina

Ksenia hears that I am also a former scientist and comes to my work table to talk to me about it. She was a biophysicist in Russia in the late 1960’s, but she abandoned that career path to restore and paint icons, a criminal activity then. Later, I will hear the stories of how the KGB bugged her apartment, how her neighbors spied on her, how she had a secret smuggling operation of pigments and distributed them to other icon painters. How the KGB searched for contraband and didn’t notice the bags of marble dust because the apartment was messy with her children’s toys. How she played the role of a bored housewife who needed something to do with her spare time to get them to leave her alone. And how she and her family fled Russia for America after the murder of her mentor and friend, Fr. Alexander Men. But I didn’t know any of that yet. She is approaching me, happy that another scientist is in the room. We talk a little bit about science. I’m surprised that she seems familiar with the roundworm species I worked with, since it gained popularity as a model system years after she retired. She asks me what my favorite thing about lab work was. It didn’t take me long to answer, “Isolating DNA. I never got tired of seeing it appear.” She said, “Me, too.”

I’ve painted icons before. Several. But this week is different. Nothing is mysterious or proprietary about the way Ksenia, Anna and Marek teach or what they do. I’m gaining some real technical knowledge and learning a lot of new skills. But mostly I’m learning that icons are about reality, physical as well as spiritual. Ksenia lectures with photos of faces taken from magazines. Having had no formal art school training, she learned by observation. A lecture on hair brings out another set of photos from salon magazines, showing the patterns of light hitting waves and locks of hair. Later that week, I am not getting the hair highlights quite right. Ksenia brings a few magazine clippings to my table for me to refer to as I work.

My favorite magazine photo is the black leather jacket. You see, I’d always found Byzantine garments confusing. With my prior experience in art school using soft shadows to show the folds of fabric, the geometric shapes and sharp lines of icon clothing made no sense to me, and even after several icon classes, I still I had no idea how to depict it. Ksenia puts the photo on the overhead projector. Clearly on the black jacket you can see a white line of light running down the edges of the collar and the front placket. She points to the white line and says in her heavy accent, “Third light.” She takes a photo of drapery from one of those home decorating catalogs. Dupioni silk curtains, side by side in various colors, crumpled at the bottom where they hit the floor. Again she points to different sections of the drapery. “First light; second light; third light.” I’m looking hard. Yes, I can see it. Second light on the drapery, geometric shapes. Subtle, but there. Third light – the bright line on the edge of the fold.

This image is similar to the one she showed us:


In Maggie Valley over the drone of the motorcycles, I learn that what we see in the icon, is what we see in life. Abstracted a bit? Of course. Removed from reality? No. “The icon should be clear. There are no secrets in the icon,” Ksenia would say. No strange mystical symbolism. No overly complex theories or explanations. Nothing hidden. A good icon is clear and straightforward, just like the Gospel.

Fast forward to October, 2015. I am an artist in residence in the Arts and Culture Exhibit at Riverside Greek Fest. People are coming up to see my work, watch me paint and ask questions. Someone tells me an elaborate theory he read somewhere about Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity. I respond, “Well, maybe…..but maybe Rublev just painted them like that. I tend not to put a whole lot of meaning on things that we’re not sure about.” He agrees that that makes sense.

I realize that I have a duty to share what I’ve learned from Ksenia. And the main take-away concept I received from my time studying with her is clarity. If the gospel message is clear, then the icon should be, too.

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All images © 2012-2016 Yvonne Hajdu-Cronin