Icon Writing Workshop – Zen and the Art of Making Sense of Religion

Icon Writing Workshop – Zen and the Art of Making Sense of Religion


An old teacher of mine who I correspond with from time to time, Sharon Church from University of the Arts, mentioned to me that she had taken an Icon Writing course. I had never heard of that before. Writing? What do you mean by that? I came to understand that this is the common translation from the Greek word “eikonographia,” or iconography, which refers to these classic religious paintings that we all know and (some of us) love. The words just got a little muddied, as the “graphia” suffix (whose true meaning is “depiction”) led to the translation of “writing.” So there we have it. That’s what we call it, though there are some who argue that we should not.


Anyway, this intrigued me. I’ve always been inspired by religious imagery, architecture, and symbolism, though I did not grow up immersed in the church. I did some research, and lo and behold, there was a workshop in Los Angeles, a 2 hour drive from me, in Oct (about 6 months away.) And we would be doing Archangel Michael, which appealed to me. I bookmarked this thought and sat on it. My mom came out to visit in August, and I mentioned it to her. We had never discussed it before, and neither of us is very religious (at least as far as conventional, church-going, bible-studying religion), but she said that she had been wanting to do that for a long time but couldn’t find any info on it. So we decided to do it together! How exciting! Well, she got sick and was unfortunately unable to attend (just a bad flu), but I went ahead and dove in. 


The 6-day workshop was held at the retreat center of a church in Echo Park. I knew there would be some prayer and meditation involved, but I had no idea that I would be the only non-church-goer in attendance. On day one, I was asked what my denomination was. “I don’t have one.” Ok. That seemed fine and we all got along quite well. The classes were taught by 2 teachers from the Proposan School of Iconology in Russia. My dad, being of Ukranian descent, has roots in the Russian Orthodox Church. While I never attended, there must be some of it in my D.N.A.… perhaps?



The first thing I learned is that there is very little, if any, separation between the technical aspect of doing the work and the spiritual. I was drawn to the process of using natural materials in this traditional Byzantine style of working – wood, linen, clay, egg tempera with a vast array of (mostly) natural ground pigments, and 24 karat gold leaf. Each step has a spiritual association, as well. The board – the Tree of Life, the linen – the Veil, the gesso – the Virgin, whiteness, emptiness, etc. Each day we had breakfast at 8am (which honestly was the thing that scared a total night owl like me the most about this!) followed by a theology talk/lesson by Tatiana. I listened with an open mind, while trying to figure out what it meant to me and my life, as someone who doesn’t follow an orthodox religion. I spent a lot of time trying to process these ideas and make sense of them in a way that I could digest. I found myself visualizing all the different ways people throughout the years have tried to put a face on an idea. We as humans need to do that. God. Archangel Michael. What are they? Do they exist? Some blindly accept what they are taught. Some say they have seen them. Some strongly object to the idea. I believe they exist. Though I believe they are not men with faces. We put those faces on these energetic ideas so that they make sense to us. So that we can worship them with a passion that we could not manifest for something without a face. Wars have been fought over whose face is the right face. Does it really matter? I guess that’s easy for me to say when I did not grow up being told what the right face was. 


I did think a lot about my beliefs. What did I worship? I called my boyfriend during one of my nightly walks around the lake and asked him, “Are we Pagans?” That was the only thing that seemed to make sense. I never knew what a Pagan truly was, aside from someone who wasn’t Catholic…a heathen. But celebrating God through his creations is something that made sense to me, though this was talked down upon during the lectures. I suppose the idea of worshipping the creations as opposed to the Creator was less than holy. But I see it as using the beauty that already exists, and really paying attention to it as a way of worship, instead of making up a face to put on God.


But amidst me trying to make sense of all this theological and biblical stuff, which only made sense to me when I saw the humanization of God and his angels as nonsense, I was there to paint the human manifestations of these forms, and I was excited to do so! How do I make sense of that? I guess sometimes you just don’t. And then you just do.


Which is what I really liked about the process. You just do it. Icon Writing is not ego-driven. It is an art form where the goal is to actually NOT leave your mark. There is a specific sequence to the steps, with meditation before and contemplation after each. Setting aside a few moments before picking up the brush to visualize the next step was valuable, and I’m embarrassed that I don’t do it more often in my own work. I believe that leads to a lot of the frustration that I end up feeling. I enjoyed following direction, without having to make too many decisions. The color choices were set. We painted clay bole onto the halo and let it dry. We breathed onto the clay, long slow breaths, giving enough warmth and moisture for the gold leaf to stick. A tedious, finicky process that I thoroughly enjoyed. After tracing our image onto the board, we then engraved the lines into the wood and painted them. In each section, we put down a washy layer of egg tempera (which we were shown how to make), then a highlight. The process was repeated 3 times until we got our final layer. 



A fellow student said to me, “It’s so weird, when I walk away from my icon and come back, I look at it and I don’t see something I made.” I knew exactly what he meant. Another man to my right, a Catholic Priest (a very cool one) who had no art experience whatsoever, was creating the same thing we were. He got incredibly frustrated at times, and his lines were not as clean, but he followed the process and Archangel Michael emerged on his board, just as mine. That’s the beauty of it. It’s a lot of work, it’s time-consuming, but if you do the work, it works!


I remember thinking how different this was to work without bugs flying into my hands, as I’ve grown accustomed to at my home in the desert. None. As I came close to the finish of my icon, I got a visit by a tiny winged creature, something that looked like a miniature moth. It landed on Michael. I blew it away, and it kept returning. I stepped outside to get some air (and some warmth….the AC was freezing!!!) and 2 feathers were blown into my path, right at my feet. I took these things as a little sign from Michael that things were going well and he was there. I dared not tell anyone this for fear of how they may interpret my reading these signs, but it was affirming. I was doing the work, and it was working. 


I worked down the the very last minute. With the help of Tatiana, I finished. I had some trying moments at the end….I touched up the clay on the edges, then touched it before it was dry and smeared it all over. The same with my white “omega” line, the final line we put around the red “alpha” line that goes around the halo. But, like I always say, everything is fixable. And these were no exceptions. I let him sit while I ate some lunch, the last one to do so. When I returned to him, some water had been dripped on his wing as a result of someone wiping down the table. Tatiana said to call it his birth mark. Yup. Everything is fixable, and everything is perfectly imperfect. We are not gods, merely mortals. And there is beauty in our imperfect humanness. 

I still need to oil my icon. This is the one step that we did not do, as the icon needs to sit for at least one week before we can do this. I suppose I’m not the typical Icon Writing student, but I do hope to and plan on doing this again. How will I incorporate what I’ve learned into my own work? I’m still letting it sink in. I guess time will tell. But I do plan on ordering some 24 karat gold leaf and some burnishing tools. I’ll start there!



*On an interesting side-note, I’ve recently watched 3 documentaries about different religions and the harm that has been done to some people in the name of these beliefs….some well-meaning, others less so. It still baffles my mind how much power the Catholic church has and how successfully they have been able to ignore the rampant abuse that has taken place in their churches over the years, which was brutally illustrated in the Netflix docu-series “The Keepers.” The one thing that I was struck by was that although the abusers were able to escape legal justice, karmic justice caught up with them – hard. How does one stay with the church and come to peace with that? Perhaps the same way I continue to practice Bikram yoga although the man himself is a sexual predator? It’s the elephant in the room. 


The other 2 documentaries I recently watched were “Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses,” a true story about a Maori woman who was killed by her well-intentioned family in a botched exorcism, and then “One of Us,” the moving stories of three different people who decided to leave the insular Hasidic Jewish community and the tragic personal and sometimes legal struggles involved with that, including a woman who lost custody of her 7 children to an abusive husband and father, because rippling the waters of the “status quo” (i.e. – exposing the children to television) was a much bigger crime than physical abuse. Food for thought, and recommended. All three.


Below are some pics of the process. Enjoy!


Dmitri & Tatiana


Clay bole and 24K gold leaf.


Alpha line and sankir (that’s what this paint is called).


First layer of rozkrish (chaos).


First highlight.


First float and second highlight.


Third highlight and third float.


Final lines, orb, touch-ups and DONE!


Theology lecture doodle.


Dmitri’s amazingly skilled Theotokos.






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