Something beautiful happened in Maggie Valley, North Carolina last week, September 11-17, 2011, and not just in the upper reaches of the Appalachian Mountains where leaves are beginning to turn gold ocher, burnt sienna and venetian red (pigments familiar to the iconographer’s palette).  During the last session of the Six Days of Creation for this year, 19 students gathered at Living Waters Catholic Reflection Center in Maggie Valley from 11 U.S.  states, Brazil and New Zealand to learn the ancient technique of icon making in the egg-tempera medium.

As usual, our students were a mix of first timers and veterans of Hexaemeron’s Six Days of Creation courses, now in our ninth year of offering the highest quality of instruction available on the North American continent in terms of thoroughness, aesthetic honesty and faithfulness to the tradition. This is not a self-assessment (boastful effusion), but the report of many of the hundreds of students who are grateful to have found the treasure of Ksenia Pokrovsky’s teaching.

True to our motto, “Iconography is Hard Work”, lessons began after sun’s first light at 7:30 A.M. for Morning Prayer and breakfast, and continued until artificial light was switched off in the workshop studio between 8:00 and 9:00 P.M. each day (and on the last day, near midnight).  If you are searching for a workshop that advertises lessons in iconography and are shopping for a bargain, nothing can compare with having access to Team Pokrovsky with Ksenia, her daughter Anna Gouriev and Marek Czarnecki for 10 to 12 hours a day.

Now, I am boasting, but not exaggerating.  Ask anyone who has “survived” Hexaemeron’s icon boot camp where three expert instructors mother every step of the progress students make toward birthing a sacred face on a humble wood board. Ask Fr. Stuart Sellar who traveled 8,500 miles from New Zealand or Dr. Gilberto Safra who has made the 4,600 mile air-trek from Sao Paulo, not once but four times.

Icon boot camp with Hexaemeron is not all hard work; it generates a temporary community that evolves lasting family like relationships among persons who desire to enter into the tradition of the art of the icon. Part of that evolution takes place in the light-hearted comradely enjoyed after work hours in the hospitality room.  For the fifth year in a row, one of our long-time students, Fr. Alexander (Sasha) Lisnichuk, treated us on Thursday night to a concert of traditional Brazilian ballads and Brazilian inspired rhythms of his own, which he plays on his seven-string violão (acoustic guitar). Next year we hope to enjoy some of Fr. Alexander’s music played on the cavaquinho, a four-string ukulele-like instrument brought to Brazil by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. Dr.  Safra, another member of our Hexaemeron family, presented Fr. Alexander with the beautiful little cavaquinho made in his home country.

Conversation around the hospitality tables sometimes turned philosophical. Discussions about the primitive state of iconography in America sparked many questions and concerns about how the serious student can significantly progress without structures of apprenticeship in place, such as exist under ecclesiastical guidance in Russia, and other predominately Orthodox countries. Even in our seminaries, training in the sacred art of the icon is not included except sporadically and on a very low level.

In such an underdeveloped environment, churches often yield to one of two options: importing iconographers from Russia and Greece or hiring an amateur practitioner.  We have seen many times that clergy sponsor parishioners to go through our icon boot camp in order to use them gratis as resident iconographers.

The reason given for this is that congregations cannot afford the work of professional iconographers and therefore turn to artists within their midst who will “gift” the services of adorning.  This is often the case with mission churches that may not be able to even provide a permanent space for worship. It is troubling, however, that achieving permanency sometimes means priorities favor providing corporeal comfort over spiritual essentials for Orthodox worship. Hence, the proliferation of laminated photographs substituted for icons or iconesque folk-art taking the place of works aesthetically and theologically appropriate. This mentality is so pervasive that it threatens the livelihood of accomplished iconographers and lowers expectations for and recognition of what the icon is. All of which only serves to keep iconography in the primitive state that we see it now.

Our seasoned students understand this catastrophe and genuinely desire to become equipped to meet the needs of their churches for sacred adornment. The quality work they produced in Maggie Valley is a testament to their talent and sobriety of purpose.

Again, as with the workshop held in the remote setting of St. Tikhon Orthodox Theological Seminary, June 19-25, 2011, the fundamental question of Hexaemeron’s mission is raised.  We have never claimed that the workshop model is capable of graduating iconographers. In fact, we have stated such in all our literature and in our classes. We return from a glorious six days, surrounded by the natural beauty of mountain streams and forests, happy to have reconnected with long-time friends and to have made new ones. Yet again, we are aware that we must find a way to help them become fully literate in the language of iconography in which they have invested themselves to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ by means of line and color.

Again, we turn to the Holy Trinity and ask for divine direction on how to establish a permanent shelter for the thorough training of iconographers.  Again, we find ourselves evaluating our mission after wandering these last ten years, pitching our tent where we may to spend six days providing lessons that can hardly be apprehended in six years of close apprenticeship with a master teacher like Ksenia Pokrovsky.  In a completely unforeseen way, we have become a  part of the Izograph Society of Iconographers that Ksenia and her fellow pioneers founded in Russia  in the 1980’s when making icons was a crime on par with trafficking in firearms, pornography and narcotics. Under Ksenia’s uncompromising guidance, we are helping to recover icon writing, not as an indigenous art of America, but as an organic link to the ancient tradition of iconography, a rescuing and resurrection of sublime models upon which to base what comes after us in gratitude for what we have received.

On these shores we are pioneering works of beauty for which an aesthetically and spiritually starved culture desperately yearns, though perhaps unaware. Our students’ work reminds us that God provides beautiful things in the wilderness that may someday change the world. Iconography is hard work, but Our Lord’s burden is easy and His yoke is light.

And, as Dostoevsky has famously said, “Beauty shall save the world.”

Mary Kathryn Lowell

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