Ksenia Pokrovsky fell asleep in the Lord on Sunday, July 7, 2013. Her long-time student and assistant instructor Marek Czarnecki composed this tender tribute to her. May her Memory be Eternal!
After a long weekend of iconography lessons with Ksenia Pokrovsky, my inner monologue had a Russian accent. It’s the same this week after her funeral. I’m trying to remember the sound of her voice. Not just what she said, but how she said it. She was self-conscious of her English. I reassured her, “Don’t worry, you are always clear.” Besides, no one who lives here is without an accent, that’s the music of American English.
Thinking about her as a teacher, I wanted to write about an ongoing conversation we had between us. It started many years ago, and continued for more than a decade. It’s connected with a greater dilemma – what to do now that she’s gone? I never imagined it would be so hard.
I bought my first book on Russian icons while I was in art school, many years before studying iconography. Even then, the contemporary icons by Mother Juliana and Father Zenon were my favorites. Ksenia was showing me a folder of her drawings when a simple pencil drawing of a hand fell out. “Ah, Marek, this is one of Mother Juliana’s drawings, she was teaching me about hands”. When she told me Mother Juliana was one of her teachers, and Zenon one of her friends, I wanted to fall off my chair. Thank you, God. This was more than I could have ever asked you for.
Many iconography students ask where they can find the “canons” or rubrics of iconography. I repeat what my teacher told me, “mostly inside old icons, there are some manuals of rules, church council teachings, pattern books, in churches and museums, and in the writings of the saints.” The best place, if you are lucky enough, is to have a living canon in front of you, in the life and example of your teacher. It’s not in any book, or any one icon, but synthesized in the reality of a human being. Ksenia was my canon.
I loved how she put together all the pieces of iconography and life. “The icon connects us to reality” was one of the most important things she taught me. When we were studying hands, or hair, she would pull out a scrap book full of her “photo-pictures”- hands and hair cut out of fashion magazines, advertising flyers, wig catalogues, the Boston Globe. “Let us look at our reality” she would repeat, “now we will open it up, inside the vision of the icon”. She looked at students’ icons the way an English teacher would correct an essay. First she checked for content, then grammar, and lastly, graceful expression. The highest compliment Ksenia could pay anyone about their finished icon was a calm “yes, fine, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.” When someone asked her about the “secrets” of iconography, she looked bewildered. “What do you mean? The icon must be open,” she said. “The expression on the faces must look open. The meaning should be direct and open. Otherwise, how will it penetrate our minds and sink into our hearts?” I had never heard anyone talk about icons like this. Open, yes, of course. Icons must be open…
She knew what authority she could claim, but also had enough self-awareness to know where she lacked understanding. “We can’t be perfect; we need to be good enough. The problem is most people are not good enough.” When I told her she was the best iconographer alive, “no,” she replied (firmly, modestly, honestly) “there are many living iconographers much better than me”, citing Father Zenon as the prime example. “I’m the only iconographer you’ve known. There are some things I understand very well. Those things I want to be able to leave somewhere, so it’s not lost.” Provocatively, she added, “I want my students to jump over me”.
My exact reply to her was “That’s impossible!”, and I added, “you must be high, lady!” She answered even more provocatively, “then I don’t want to teach you”.
Maybe she said this, because I said she was high? Thinking about this now, I know she was high, but not the way I jokingly meant at the time. She was talented and smarter and wiser above and beyond anyone I had ever met. When I admitted that I could never live up to her standards, she said “Then promise me you will be a good place keeper. Otherwise, we will go backwards together.” I’ve never seen her happier than when she met another iconographer whose work she admired, or when a student’s work was successful. She beamed.
I read her this passage from “The Joy Luck Club”, about parents and children: “We’re like stairs, we go up or down, but we are all going in the same direction.” We talked about the playground game of leap frog. She explained how all the generations of iconographers that lived before us are lining up like that human chain, interceding and pushing us forward with their momentum. Like those invisible witnesses, she wanted to build a good foundation in a new country that lacked roots or foundations, where “iconoclast” was high praise. She wanted to give criteria that was stable, simple, direct and authentically Orthodox. She knew that is was thankless and invisible work but it’s what was needed here. “Just don’t fall backwards, and don’t take me with you if you do.”
We didn’t build the “staircase” of iconography. Generations of anonymous icongraphers and saints paved it with their real human lives. It’s their selfless gift to us. It transcends us individually and will be there after we are long gone. Ksenia’s provocative challenge was please leave this path cleaner, more clearly lit and sturdier than you found it. Make it smoother and easier to travel for the next person, so they can go higher than your limitations (“…what took me thirty years to learn, I teach you now in a week”). She knew she had a responsibility to something bigger than herself – to God, of course, to her students yes, and, looking back over her shoulder, to the expectations of her teachers. If you don’t fall backwards, prepare to let someone crawl over your back, and stand on your shoulders. Iconography is a tradition without a ceiling. Like all spiritual work, it’s hubris to imagine it can be realized in one lifetime.
Today, I doubt Ksenia would put out such a challenge, “jump over me”. With time, she became very discouraged about the lack of understanding of iconography, a lack of awe for its integrity. Few advanced its depth or quality. Especially worrisome were the ambitious commercial websites of iconographers who had studied with her once or twice (it’s one thing for you to claim your teacher; it’s another matter for your teacher to claim you). She was happy that students worked independently, but at the same time, deeply saddened that what she saw was regressive. She astutely observed “this is the exploitation of the icon,” for personal profit of one kind or another. If we think of iconography as a language, she was like a great author reading a newspaper full of misspelled words and garbled sentences.
Recently, a 22 year-old student complained to me “I’m too old to start; I wish I had begun earlier”. The bell in my mind rang “good potential here!” He’s right. It can be overwhelming, but it shouldn’t be paralyzing – this is why we pray “Lord have mercy on me” while we work, over and over. No one is worthy, and no one will get it all done. At a workshop, a very discouraged student was crying after her first frustrating, clumsy icon. Ksenia very patiently explained “It’s only your first icon. It’s like the alphabet, A-Z. You just started on “A”. She pointed at me and said, “Marek is starting ‘B’, Anna is on “C”, I’m on ‘D'” she said, “but no one gets to ‘Z’”.
Right now, I am wondering whether we will be good place-keepers, or weak links. “We put ourselves in the hands of God as a tool, but our work makes us sharp tools. Maybe then he can use us.” She smiled when saying things like this, because she knew how simple her directive sounded, but how hard it was to put into real practice. “It’s so hard to become invisible, to be completely transparent! It takes years of hard work”.
Spasiba Bolshoi, Ksenia. We will work with hope in our hearts that we won’t be perfect, but good enough.