The current exhibit at the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Gallery, “Locating Prosopon: On the Path to the Divine Countenance,” on view until, Sunday, June 30, deals with matters seen and unseen. The former, of course, is the exhibition. The latter includes the ideas related to the centuries-old tradition of icon making and the opportunity to engage in it.
“Locating Prosopon” was created to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the New York State-based Prosopon School of Iconology and its 17-year presence of summer workshops in Princeton. The exhibition features 20 works by nine master iconographers and advanced apprentices of the school, including two individuals from the Princeton area.
Icons, which means images, are rooted in the Russian-Byzantine Orthodox Christian practice of depicting religious scenes or saints on small panels used for spiritual contemplation. The tradition reaches as far back as the eighth century and emblemizes spiritual faithfulness and continuity. The approach favors stylized representation over realism. The flatness in the rendering (rather than an attempt to create the illusion of a third dimension) is connected to the idea that an icon is written, rather than painted or drawn, and the overall design is informed by “sacred” geometry, an organization that provides insight to a universal unity.
A school in concept, Prosopon (which means the “face” or “mask”) uses the traditional and natural medium of egg tempera and gold leaf applied to gessoed wood panels. It provides workshops in North and South America, Europe, and in Binghamton, New York, where its principals live and practice.
Prosopon was founded and is directed by 75-year-old Russian emigre and icon artist Vladislav Andrejev, who has been called both an enemy of the people by the Soviet Union and one of the foremost iconographers in America. He arrived in the United States in 1980. An interview with the decidedly old world Andrejev is available on the Prosopon School website (www.prosoponschool.org).
As may be expected from such a tradition bound process, the current exhibition emphasizes time honored approaches over individual expression and novelty. The process emphasizes the master and apprentice approach. The goal, in part, is to maintain the process of passing on the re-creation of a canon of existing icons.
However, the goal is not to create exact replications, and the exhibit shows that the process provides opportunities for variations or embellishments on a visual theme. For example, take the three panels depicting the Old Testament scene of Jacob wrestling with an angel. At first glance, they seem the same, but linger a bit and subtle changes present themselves, causing one to pause and contemplate both the image and the approach.
Maureen McCormick, who lives in Lawrence with her husband, graphic designer Phil Unetic, and daughter, Phoebe, is Princeton’s liaison to the school and the coordinator of both the annual weeklong summer event and the icon painting classes that recently started at Trinity Church and will continue throughout the year.
“While we all work from the same images, often the same color palate, our icons are quite unique,” says McCormick of the process. “The more accurate way to think of it is the monk in the scriptorium and copying a script word for word in their own handwriting and their own style.”
A print maker and drawing artist by training and a museum registrar by profession, McCormick adds, “We don’t say, ‘we paint icons,’ we say, ‘we write an icon.’ It’s a little bit of an artificial and strict translation of ‘graphos,’ which means ‘to write,’ but I think the reason is that it developed as a convention is that it is a way to signal to say that we are writing or transcribing the gospel in images. And something else, often said about icons, is that they are gospels in color and light.”
McCormick has been practicing this approach for almost two decades and believes there is a reason that others are taking the classes, where the maker of art enters into the image rather than work on the surface of it. “I think people are so drawn to these images in the 20th century because we are bombarded with images. We watch evening news and see so much violence and slaughter and sexualized culture. These images remind us of the better angels of our nature.”
The people taking the classes are mostly Christians, she says, but not always, and one does not need to be an Orthodox Christian or even a believer to participate. “My unscientific observation is that we get a high number of Catholics and then a large collection of Episcopalians and Anglicans, then a smaller portion of other denomination.” Since none of these groups practice an approach to creating and using images in the same way that the Orthodox Christian churches do, individuals taking the classes or workshops are getting something missing from their religious experience, says McCormick.
Additionally most of the people who take the workshops have no artistic training and are coming from the spiritual standpoint, says McCormick. But, she confesses, her involvement is different. “I come from it as anomaly in that I came through art. When people ask if I am an artist, I say I am an iconographer, a writer of icons. I make icons not to make something personal but to use centuries of tradition to say something universal and eternal,” she says.
McCormick’s journey illustrates the attraction to this style of art making. “I went to Suffern High School (in Rockland County, New York),” she says. “My father was a math and calculus teacher there, and my mom was a grade school librarian. I was the artsy one. My mother died when I was in high school and my father remarried. My father came from a big Irish-Catholic family, and his younger brother, my uncle Bobby (Robert McCormick), was an artist in Greenwich in the1960s, taught at Hunter College, and lived the life of a bohemian artist. He was a sort of an abstract painter, very different from what I do. I visited him in New York when I was a teenager; it seemed so exotic compared to the very suburban life that I led. He wasn’t famous but had a local reputation.”
Her early exposure to art and artists made a difference. “I was a good academic student, so I had other options, but I was always drawing when I was young, and my mom signed me up to drawing classes with nude models when I was in eighth grade. Then my mother said, ‘Okay, if you are going to be an artist that’s great, but I want you to take a typing class so you have something to fall back on.’ What she meant that I could always be a secretary, but (typing) was a very helpful skill to land my first museum job: a secretary in the register office at the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio.”
Though she wanted to draw, McCormick changed her focus to printmaking when she entered SUNY Potsdam because, she says, there was no degree in drawing, and printmaking required similar approaches to her main interest. After receiving a BA in studio art and a concentration in printmaking, she earned an MFA in printmaking from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 1980.
“How I ended up in Columbus was that I got an MFA, yet could find nothing to teach on the college level. But my boyfriend did get a job at the Columbus School of Art and Design. Since I didn’t have anything else to do, I moved to Columbus, applied for a number of jobs, sold shoes, and then applied for a job with as a secretary at the Columbus Museum. It wasn’t my MFA that got me the job; it was my typing,” she says about her first job working in a museum registry department.
“What a museum registrar does is to keep track of the collection and make order out of chaos,” she says. “So you need to be a type of person who is extremely organized and fastidious and a little OCD. The boyfriend and I had split up. So I applied for a job at the Princeton University Art Museum and moved to the Princeton area in 1984. I worked there until this past January, a long time.”
She left the museum in January to devote time to making of icons. “At a certain point being iconographer stopped being something that I did and became something I was. I became an iconographer. And that’s why I decided to step down from a great job with a steady paycheck to a less certain existence. I hasten to say that I can do this because I am fortunate because I am married to someone who can help make this happen. And the hit to our income is quite real. But I read an article in the New York Times about octogenarians. What one person regretted was not the mistakes that he made but the risks that he hadn’t taken. I knew that if I didn’t do this that it would be deathbed regret. I will give it my all, and, if it doesn’t work, I’ll do something else.”
McCormick’s choice is connected to something deep within. “The story of my artistic life is the story of my spiritual life,” she says. “My mother’s death and going right off to college where I was exposed to existentialism and all those big things precipitated a crisis of faith. I did not have a whole lot of time for God. I would never call myself an atheist, but I certainly lost faith in religion. So I sort of drifted and put that part of my life on the shelf for a long time. Then when I was in my 30s, I started asking myself big questions and found myself back in church. Through a variety of coincidences, someone invited me to come to Trinity Church. I didn’t have an immediate conversion, I started attending, and then I was received by the bishop into the Episcopal Church.”
Another conversion occurred in 1996. “I read in a Sunday leaflet that there was going to be an icon workshop at Trinity Church. I can tell you I had very little interest in icons or could really tell you what an icon was. In 1990 the Princeton University Art Museum hosted an exhibition called “Gates of Mystery: Art from Holy Russia,” and it was an exhibition of icons and liturgical artifacts from the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. And I thought, ‘these paintings are kind of odd.’ They seemed naive, but they interested me a little bit. I was also intrigued by the fact that when I would walk through the gallery, I would come across people — Orthodox priests and others — bowing before the icons and crossing themselves. That was an epiphany for me that a work of art could be more than something you look at. Again I made a little mental note that ‘that’s interesting’ and then six years later I saw this notice and I said to my husband, ‘I am going to take that workshop.’”
Calling that first class her Road to Damascus experience (after St. Paul’s unexpected spiritual awakening), McCormick says, “I could barely sleep that night or that week. Because what was so exciting to me was that what iconographers have been doing for centuries was what I was trying to do: create a language that could be read like a book and the production of these works could be a symbolic and devotional act.”
The first Prosopon workshop came to Princeton through a woman at Trinity Church. After taking an icon making workshop in Philadelphia, she became enthused and arranged for a program at the church. Then the woman moved. When McCormick, who was in the original class, asked if someone else was going to take her place, she volunteered and has coordinated it ever since.
McCormick says that since the workshops are typically in July she would arrange her vacations around them. “Then pretty soon I am taking all my time taking workshops. As my daughter got older I started ratcheting up my game. Over the past five years I have been going up to the Binghamton area to master classes for advanced students and instructors and do a week long retreat once a year. So I have gotten increasingly serious about this.”
Her seriousness has resulted in the launching of ongoing icon classes that continue throughout the year. “The class I am teaching right now meets on Mondays through mid-June. It is geared for what I call ‘advanced beginners,’ students who have completed two or more icons under my direction, or one of the other Prosopon instructors, but who wish to delve deeper and begin to learn to mix their own pigments. Instructors mix all the pigments and other solutions for beginning students as the learning curve on this is steep. This means that progress will be very slow and we will continue to work on this icon. My eventual hope, then, is to have a beginners’ class and an intermediate class going at (almost) any given time,” she says.
McCormick is joined in the process of bringing icon classes to Princeton by Lynette Hull, who took her first icon class in 2002, continues practicing, and hosts a weekly group of iconographers at her Princeton home. Recently, Hull produced and organized the area Prosopon conference for which McCormick coordinated the current exhibition. Icons “written” by both are included.
“I would say that a big difference between an icon and work of fine art is that the icon is meant to disappear,” McCormick says. “It is meant to be a membrane between the seen and the unseen world. Often the metaphor is that the icon is the door or a window you look through, rather than a painting that you look at. As an iconographer, you don’t want to draw a lot of attention to yourself. You want the icon to be beautiful because beauty is a divine gift. That’s why you never see an icon with a signature on its front. And on the labels we don’t say the icon is by someone, but by the hand of. We don’t own these images. You can’t copyright an icon.”
However, an icon can be sold. “You could commission a simple icon of a single figure for a thousand bucks, you can find iconographers who could it for less, but you get what you pay for. If you were a church you could pay a team of iconographers who could create for the interior of a church. That’s how iconographers can make a pathetic living. My approach is that an icon represents about $300 worth of material and a month of my life (compressed over a year). So for an icon of complexity I would want to make about $5,000. And people who say that’s too much money, I would say what did you pay for your car or pay a plumber? Coming from the museum world, I see the prices there. To me, commissioning an icon from a contemporary iconographer is a bargain.” She says that commissions can be made for use at home or for special occasions, such as a wedding.
McCormick admits that her artistic pursuit is unusual, but she says that she is willing to stand up for her freedom to follow her own artistic vision. “In the academy or university world, when I would meet art historians who studied icons historically and be introduced as an iconographer, some would look at me as if I had three heads. But others were interested in that it was a tradition. This is a personal belief to me. From the world of fine art where everything has to be new and different, to me it was a great release to set down that burden. That ego was what I set aside and submit to that discipline. The great irony is that I never felt as creative as I am right now.”
While McCormick hopes that people will join her in the icon making classes, she has another hope, too. “I am only being this candid and transparent with the idea that perhaps this story may inspire others. I’m just a pilgrim on this road, and we learn from one another.”
Erdman Art Gallery, Princeton Theological Seminary, 20 Library Place, Princeton. Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 1:30 to 9 p.m. Free. 609-497-7990 or go to www.ptsem.edu/Offices/ConEd.
Prosopon Summer Workshop, Trinity Episcopal Church, 33 Mercer Street, Princeton. Sunday, July 7, noon to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, July 8 through 12, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cost new students: approximately $715 total ($425 tuition + $165 materials + $125 estimated workshop expenses); returning students: contact workshop coordinator for estimate. www.trinityprinceton.org.
Ongoing icon classes will be offered weekly in the fall to coincide with Advent and in the spring in coincide with Lent, evening and day class will be available. Cost for a six-week class (six hours per day) is approximately $600 and includes course, materials, and other expenses. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.