Our son Ron works in the film industry because he really, really loves film. Only occasionally do I venture into a movie theater. When I do get around to the “Mom, you should watch this” movies, he will ask me if I caught such and such. Usually I have not. Now understand, he has probably watched the film multiple times. I mean, seriously watched it. On the other hand, I sit in front of the TV with my fingers (and eyes!) entangled in the knitting project in my lap, glancing up only when it sounds like something important is happening.
I bring this situation to the table to say some things about “praying” with icons.
Nowadays, colorful images are everywhere and flip past us at a phenomenal rate such that they become mere background “noise.” One of the rare times we scrutenize an image is during the “instant replay” of a hotly contested moment in a sports event.
Old-school icons are considered “The Gospel in Line and Color.” Back in the day, people who could not read text could read the images, recall the stories, contemplate the various symbols, and consider how the message of the image mattered to them. They could burn the image into their brain and have it available for instant replay when needed.
The question: How often have you sat still and simply looked at one static image for an extended period of time? What about gazing long enough to notice little things and allow connections to form between what is in the image with what is out in the world or in your soul?
In my own practice, I might even begin an internal dialogue with the saint before me, letting her words, or silence, instruct me.
Each day when beginning to paint, I just sit with the image in its current state and let it speak to me.
Gold sandals were not in the original plan. John, the Panhandler saw them in an alley, liked them, and put them on. They likely had belonged to a hooker. He thought he would spend the day walking in her shoes. And praying for her.
Saint John, Lost Job Sign
For a year, Ron and I lived in a high rise at the intersection of 16th Street and Glenarm Place in the Heart of Denver. For entertainment, we needed to do no more than sit on our 22nd floor balcony or step out onto the street.
The Convention Center and entertainment district are only a few blocks away, Federal and State government buildings as well. Hotels and eateries too numerous to count are crammed into the city scape. It was not unusual to see comic book and movie characters wander up and down the street or stop for a bite in a sidewalk cafe, especially during Comicon season. Buskers playing musical instruments as varied as bag pipes, violins, pianos, and plastic buckets staked out their areas and competed for random dollars. The occasional choir gathered around one of the city’s pianos and serenaded us.
Many of the brick walls in the alleys that intersect 16th Street are covered in well painted graffiti-style art.
Often I noted folks — men, women, and children — wearing angel wings. Not uncommon at all.
Perhaps my favorite costume was a woman in a full mermaid outfit being pushed down the street in a wheelchair, her tail fins dragging the ground.
My favorite entertainer was a dude with a huge Afro in a padded red and silver robot outfit. He would accost folks with Don Rickles-style one-liners. He may have had a day job or maybe that was his day job.
And then there are the Street People. Each block has its regulars with their homemade signs begging for whatever change we can spare, asking us to smile, and then blessing us in some way. I liked the vet in a wheelchair with his dog in his lap. The dog always had on a hat appropriate to the season.
Every day I went into my studio and looked at drawings and worked on icons of Saint John with wings on his back, signifying that he is the messenger of the Lord.
Thus was born my current painting of Saint John, the Messenger. It’s not finished yet, but I will show you parts of it until it is.
Women’s March Passing Beneath My Window
The “wilderness” of ancient Judea was a place of danger and death, a place to be feared and avoided. It was in that wilderness that John called people to change their lives and prepare the way of God.
With his angel’s wings, John is the immortal messenger moving through time and space, shouting, “In your wilderness, prepare yourself to see God where God is, to do the work of God, here and now!!” John preached repentance/change and the sign for that was washing in the river. The baptism did not just mean cleaning our bodies but also cleaning up our act.
I am not sure, but last week’s marchers may well have been doing just that. The marchers were saying that they would be seriously working to save the environment and make life better for all human beings.
Recently Mother Evelyn here at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver posed the question: “How do we keep our faith and our dreams when we find ourselves in the wilderness?”
We pray. We help others. We work to save the environment. We march.
And whatever else it takes.
St. John in the Wilderness – 17th Century Russian Pattern
Two years ago at the Kanuga Icon conference, a fellow painter introduced me to St. John in the Wilderness. We exchanged print of some of our work. Later he sent me even more information about that somewhat odd icon. I did some research, found an old pattern I liked, printed it out and taped it to my studio wall in Jackson Hole. It stayed there until we moved.
After I got settled in my Denver Studio, I had to ask, “What next?” Many iconographers paint mostly commissions, responding to the needs of their clients. I did not believe that I was up to taking on commissions at this time, but I still needed to determine what to paint next.
I wanted to paint an exhibit – a series of icons that that would tell a story and provide me with an opportunity to examine something in depth – a series that would keep me working until about the time we leave here. The series did not have to be huge, maybe six or eight pieces.
Sitting in The Cathedral of Saint John in the Wilderness in Denver (my new church home), it seemed a “no brainer” to do something about my itch to paint the icon of St. John the Baptist with wings.
When I got home, I rooted around in various boxes in my studio and found that I already had a number of boards that would work just fine for the project.
And so I began.
Holy Wisdom / by the hand of Gay Pogue / Acrylic on board / 14 x 11 x 1 inches
Holy Wisdom / by the hand of Gay Pogue / Acrylic on board / 14 x 11 x 1 inches
Two years ago (2014 -2015), when we were homeless and unemployed, we lived out of Ron’s Taurus for four months. We stayed with patient family members and forgiving friends, and in hotels and motels of various sorts. I had a portable “studio” and a few supplies.
While we were with the Tripps outside of Gunnison, Colorado, I finished the icon of the Holy Wisdom that I had begun in Michigan. I had an extra board, but no extra pattern. So, I just painted the same image over again. I tweaked the pattern a bit before putting it on the board. The icon with the blue border was painted first; the gold border, second.
The icon of Holy Wisdom is essentially Jesus as he is imagined to be in heaven — his heavenly transfigured self. It is a controversial icon because Jesus is portrayed without a beard — an androgynous being. That bears some contemplation.
What strikes me is how different they are. Some of the differences were intentional; some were not.
Looking at these has led me to consider what would happen if I took an old icon pattern and intentionally painted it in different ways — not changing the central figure but rather those things that surround it.
Saint Christopher / by the hand of Gay Pogue / Acrylic on board / 14 x 11 x 1 inches
Some of you may recall that I have already painted this particular icon of Saint Christopher at an icon workshop led by Suzanne Schleck in the spring of 2015. I especially love the swirls of water echoed in the clothes of St. Christopher and the colorful red sky.
After arriving in Denver, it seemed appropriate to paint the image again as a meditation on how God, the Saints, and the Angels have cared for us and protected us in our moves.
Additionally, I have been meditating on racism, my own and the evidence of it I see in our nation. What can I do to help quiet this beast that attacks us on all sides?
When I paint the images of Jesus, the Saints, and the Angels, I know that I am supposed to project the figures of transfigured beings. But why is it that “transfigured” beings are usually depicted as White, Northern Europeans? Repeating those features and surrounding them with golden haloes does not seem to say that all God’s creatures are beautiful just as they are, no matter what their skin color happens to be.
So. I decided to paint Jesus and Saint Christopher with dark skin. In truth, there is no evidence to say that their skin was otherwise.
May the Peace of God be with you.