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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.

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Marek Czarnecki with his teacher Ksenia Pokrovsky

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”.
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Spasiba Bolshoi, Ksenia. We will work with hope in our hearts that we won’t be perfect, but good enough.

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News that Ksenia Mikhailovna Pokrovskaya had fallen asleep in the Lord on Sunday, July 7, 2013 was a profound shock. Though she had chronic hypertension, she had not been ill. She was tired, yes, for many years, but still actively sharing her wisdom and knowledge with clarity and generosity.  For both her family and friends and for those who only knew her by reputation, a light has gone out of the world. The universal response of those closest to her and of her many students is that of having suddenly become orphans.

Ksenia Pokrovsky: May her memory be eternal!

Ksenia Pokrovsky: May her memory be eternal!

Ksenia’s funeral on Wednesday evening, July 10 at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Salem, MA was followed by the all-night chanting of the psalter. When morning came she was carried from the church to St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery in northeastern Pennsylvania to be buried beside her son Dmitri († 2001). Keeping the Russian custom, the mourners themselves closed the grave with shovels and hands full of earth. The labor helped to lighten their burden of grief.

The main elements of Ksenia’s biography (see Wikipedia) are well known. She was born in Kirghizstan in 1942 during World War II when many Muscovites were evacuated because the Nazis were less than 100 miles from the city. Ksenia’s heritage flowed from many streams, including Tartar and Jewish ancestors, as well as Russian, Polish and Bulgarian. She described her mother as “a romantic communist.” It was her paternal great aunt Katya who taught her what a Christian is and cultivated in Ksenia a love of art.

Ksenia met her future  husband, Lev Alexeyevich Pokrovsky, while they were students at Moscow University. They were married in 1960 and lived together for 53 years. Lev became a teaching professor and researcher of theoretical physics while Ksenia pursued biophysics. As she completed her studies and worked in the field, Ksenia realized she was more interested in the laboratory of metaphysics than in gathering data in the halls of science. The Pokrovskys were a part of Fr. Alexander Men’s parish in the village of Novaya Derevnya located a short distance from Moscow. When Ksenia told her dilemma to Fr. Alexander, he was forthright, “Alright then, you will be an iconographer!”

Her life’s work as an iconographer reflected a scientific mind that constantly investigated every field of knowledge from chemistry and geology to psychology and history, to philosophy and theology.

After Fr. Alexander was murdered in September of 1990, the family with the exception of one son immigrated to the United States in June of 1991. Together Lev and Ksenia reared four sons: Yevgeny, Dmitry, Nikolay and Ilya; and a daughter Anna.

Beyond the facts of her life there are stories, a bottomless repository of stories that would fill many books. Her family, friends and students will be telling these stories for the rest of their lives. Besides being one of the finest iconographers of contemporary times, Ksenia Pokrovsky was one of the great personalities of the 20th and 21st centuries. Everyone who met her recognized this instantly. For all her great knowledge, she remained simple and approachable. She was very clear about the vocation of the iconographer, and she was keen to separate it from the sometimes ego-satisfying aura of the artist.  “An iconographer can never have ambition,” she would say.

Her long-time student Marek Czarnecki tells this story which illustrates Ksenia’s goal as an icon painter.

“I once told Ksenia that I thought she was the best iconographer alive. ‘No’, she said (modestly and honestly) ‘there are many living iconographers much better than me’, citing Zinon as an example.  She did know, however, where she had authority. ‘I understand some things well, and I want to be able to leave what I do know somewhere, so it is not lost.’  She said she wanted her students to “jump over” her. ‘That’s impossible, I said, ‘you are too high to jump over.’ Playfully but emphatically she answered, ‘then I don’t want to teach you.’”

As an iconographer her influence is immeasurable: a hero and pioneer to many generations of icon painters in Russia; a consummate teacher of the sacred art and a peerless example of the profession to hundreds in the West. Truly the light of her accomplishments continue to shine forth in the world and will only grow more bright as future generations come to know her.

Synaxis Of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth In North America

Synaxis Of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth In North America

Ksenia Pokrovsky was the author of many new icons. Her “Synaxis Of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth In North America” has become famous as the prototype for iconographers to follow. The icon is owned by the Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and is housed in OCA headquarters in Syosset, New York. It was commissioned by Metropolitan Theodosius after Ksenia arrived in America. It is fitting that Ksenia fell asleep on the Feast of the Saints of North America, Sunday, July 7, 2013. The icon appeared on the OCA website that Sunday. For us it was an unforeseen synaxis of events, though surely appointed by God since before the foundation of the world.

“The Beauty of Thy House”: A guide to the icons of St. Andrew Orthodox Church

The text is mostly written, even without a contract with a publisher. The book will be expensive to produce because its whole purpose is to be a guide to the masterpiece icons of St. Andrew Orthodox Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, and therefore will contain more than 50 color images with nearly 100 pages of text.  The initial concept for a brochure-size publication was just a passing notion. There is too much to fit into a handout and adequately describe this monumental work created by Master iconographer Ksenia Pokrovsky and her daughter Anna Gouriev between the years 1992 and 2006.

The text for this guide grew out of the need to educate not only visitors to St. Andrew with little or no acquaintance with Orthodoxy, but also, and perhaps primarily, St. Andrew’s own parishioners who desire a clear explanation for the subject of the icons and the liturgical and theological interplay between them in their placement within the temple.

A period of several months, September 2011 through January 2012, marked a serious effort to photograph these icons.  Many people for many years, awestruck by their beauty and content, have attempted without success to capture and reproduce decent images of the icons. The major obstacle to the task is light, not the lack thereof, but the presence of too much. First, the reflective light created by the large amount of gold covering the surfaces of the icons is extremely difficult to render without “hotspots” in the image and/or blackness.  Added to this difficulty is the blast of natural sunlight coming from the six man-sized windows, three on the North wall and three on the South wall of the nave. Because St. Andrew temple faces East, as do all Orthodox churches, sunlight floods the nave from rising to setting sun, making it impossible to manage image-making consistency.

To overcome this challenge, we engaged the services of the best art photographer in the region, Mary Rezny of MS Rezny Studio & Gallery.  The project was kicked off on September 4, 2011 when a team of three St. Andrew parishioners removed 12 festal icons from the upper tier of the iconostasis, and the large icon of Last Supper above the Royal Doors leading to the altar. The icons were carefully wrapped and transported to Rezny’s studio where she created optimum conditions for art photography.

The remaining and greater part of the project was to photograph the large murals on the North and South walls and the large icons on the lower tier of the iconostasis. The process, carried out on Monday, January 12, 2012, took more than eight hours to complete, which does not count Rezny’s editing time back at her studio, easily another day’s work or more.

Rezny’s plan for attacking the light problem was to overwhelm the light coming from the windows instead of masking it with black material or shooting the icons at night to avoid warring with the sun all together. For this she brought in her big guns, three 1600-watt-seconds lights mounted on extenders tripods that could be moved around the nave. She then built two portable 12 by 12 foot white walls out of giant paper rolls. These were used to block in the area to be photographed in order to concentrate imported light and harness ambient light to her advantage. The trick was to find the balance between the light she could artificially control and the luminescence of all that gold. Each group of murals required re-positioning walls and re-aiming guns.

The team that assisted Rezny (two persons from St. Andrew and one from St. Athanasius in Nicholasville) in moving the powerful light canons and the white walls from set-up to set-up also had to move the liturgical furniture out of picture, so to speak. Besides the baptismal font, bishop’s throne, chanter stands and lampadas, etc., the major pieces obstructing the camera’s eye were the massive oak pews that take up most of the space in the nave, which present another kind of obstacle: a barrier to the fluidity of Orthodox worship. The crew took advantage of the recent carpet replacement in the nave before the pews were bolted to the floor again. Instead of removing and returning each pew to its place, the entire row of pews in both aisles were laid down to provide a clear view to the icons. With the pews rested on their backs came a revelation: nothing is sacred or rather, even the sacred is sometimes approached irreverently. The bottoms of the pews were dotted with globs of gum in various flavor colors. As St. Peter has said, “The same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. (1 Peter 5:9)”

Now begins the task of joining image and text into one presentation.

Excerpt from the introduction to “The Beauty of Thy House”

We enter the temple from the West through a small anteroom called the narthex, which represents the fallen world and corresponds to the outer court, according to the pattern given to Moses on Mount Sinai for the tented-temple in the wilderness.  In the early history of the Church, and even during the persecutions of Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 20th century, the doors of the narthex were guarded to warn of violent intrusion and to prevent curiosity seekers from disrupting the peace of worshipers.

This intimate space is for spiritual preparation to enter the nave, the second and largest unit, which corresponds to the inner court. Immediately upon entering the narthex, the worshiper makes the sign of the Cross in recognition of transfer from worldly surroundings to the abode of heaven on earth actualized within the assembly gathered for worship in the temple structure.

First prayers are said in the narthex and candles lit. Here, the services of exorcism, infant dedications, baptisms, reception of converts, weddings and funerals begin and move reverently forward through the nave to completion before the gates to the altar, the third and final partition, which represents the Holy of Holies where only patriarchs, bishops, priests, deacons and altar servers are permitted because of special service they offer there.

Mary Kathryn Lowell

One of the sweetest men we have ever known, Fr. Seraphim Scheidler, reposed in Our Lord, January 17, 2011. He had struggled with a weak heart condition for many years. We first met him in 2003 at our inaugural icon-painting workshop in Lexington, KY. Father became a regular at the Six Days of Creation workshops, sponsored by Hexaemeron non-profit organization, and led by Ksenia Pokrovsky.

Fr. Seraphim loved the Orthodox mission in Indonesia, which he visited twice in an official capacity. In fact, he was ordained to the sub-diaconate at Holy Apostle Thomas Orthodox Church in Jakarta, February 23, 2006,  and was initially assigned to work with Fr. Daniel Byantoro, founder of the Indonesian Orthodox Church.  Fr. Seraphim’s poor heart-health held him back from realizing his desire to serve in Indonesia along side Fr. Daniel.

Truly, an un-self-conscience servant of love, Fr. Seraphim’s  focus was always on the person before him. What a shining light of kindness he was, he is, even more brightly now! Fr. Seraphim was (and is) loved by everyone who has been blessed to know him. We at Hexameron are honored to be among this blessed company. We will greatly miss him.

Memory Eternal, our dear Father and friend!

Read more about Fr. Seraphim Scheidler’s life:

http://journeytoorthodoxy.com/2010/07/18/the-story-of-fr-seraphim-scheidler/#axzz1BKwjYNll

 

 

Fr. Seraphim and Marek Czarnecki taking a break from icon painting, June 2005, St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Lexington, KY