Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Nathan Hicks' Pilgrim Iconography

I recently interviewed iconographer Nathan Hicks about where his interest in iconography started, his apprenticeship, and the opening of his own icon studio.

Nathan: You have an icon studio called Pilgrim Iconography. I'd like to talk with you about how you became an iconographer. Were you always interested in art?
Art has always been a passion of mine, so yes. I've been drawing ever since I could remember, and started trying to draw comics around the age of eight. I was a huge fan of Spider-Man, and my parents probably saved all my old comics that I'd made. I was a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes, as well as Star Wars. At eight I'd decided to become a comic book artist.
When were you first introduced to iconography and how did that affect your vocational aspirations?
I've been around iconography in some way, shape, or form for my entire life. My father has an icon of Saint Nicholas that's been hanging on our wall since before I was born. It was that I was so caught up in what I was doing that I didn't really take the time to look. It wasn't until I was fifteen and saw Father Tom's iconography that I realized the potential for beauty and truth that iconography had. Right then I decided that iconography was what I wanted to do, and the rest, as they say, is history (well, history that I'm going to relate to you anyway).
Father Tom being Father Thomas Loya of Annunciation of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Illinois?

How did you come to see his iconography and what was it that made such a profound impression upon you?

Yes, Father Tom of Annunciation. He's a great man, and I can only hope to be half the man that he is. I started going to his church at fifteen, and the reaction that I had to those walls... someone had to yank me out of the church cause they saw I was about to start shouting in excitement.
One of the central tenets of iconography is that beauty and truth are connected on a profound level. This was something that I'd known long before I'd learned it from iconography. I honestly think it was the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes that first introduced the idea to me. There are so many moments in that comic that are hilarious, beautiful, and true, that I couldn't help but notice on some intuitive level that they seemed to be connected. When I saw Father Tom's work it was the most beautiful art I'd seen in my entire life, and therefore the most true. There was something in the way that Father used the color white that was amazing, and I found myself wanting to imitate that. 
You decided at 15 that you wanted to be an iconographer and at 17 you began the process of study to make that happen. Will you walk us through your apprenticeship? Where did you start and what steps did you take along the way?
My apprenticeship (and life in general) was one of persistence and humility. Given how I am, when I decided that I wanted to be an iconographer, I wanted to become an iconographer immediately. Fortunately, Father Tom had a bit more sense than me and told me to wait. I kept asking for two years off and on, seeing if the passing of time would give me what I wanted. At 17, Father Tom told me that I could start, but that I would have to get the supplies for it first. He got a piece of paper and wrote down everything I could conceivably need for iconography, from boards to brushes. It was a list that totaled about $200, all told. I took the list, thanked him for his time, and went home with my parents. I was more than a bit distraught, considering that I had no job. When I got home I went into my room, shut the door, and prayed. I told God that I'd finally hit a wall. I had no job, and because I was in a small town I didn't see a way to do the things that I thought He wanted me to do, and that that saddened me. I then asked Him for the money, because I couldn't see a way to get it. I then left my room and forgot that I'd prayed.
Two weeks later one of my mother's best friends became Byzantine Catholic, along with most of her family. She asked me to make icons for her children, that she didn't care that I'd never done an icon before, and that she would pay for the materials. That very afternoon we went out to a Wal-Mart, got the cheapest tubes of paint that we could find, along with a board from Menards. I came back to Father Tom next week, supplies in hand. "OK, now what?" Father stared at me for a second and started to tell me how to write my first icon, that being St. Peter. But I didn't have enough color theory under my belt to really follow along with what he wanted me to do. But I tried anyway over the next few months, and finally entered a workshop run by Bob Wiesner at St. George's Romanian Catholic Parish. I'll confess that I was not a very good student, and didn't want to learn Mr. Wiesner's style. After having a long conversation on the nature of humility with the pastor and another friend I came and produced my first icon, Our Lady of the Three Hands. It was a momentous occasion for me. I'd never made something and poured so much of myself into it and had something so beautiful come out. It was amazing. With the proper spiritual grounding I set off, and have hardly stopped to breathe since. 
Obedience and humility were important foundational steps required to work as an iconographer. Once you accepted those, you were able to learn the artistic process. How did you learn the ins and outs of color theory and iconographic symbolism?
I read a lot of books and especially websites. I can't begin to tell you how many books I've found, devoured, and then forgot the names of. A good website to reference is www.iconsexplained.com. I found a lot of good interviews with modern iconographers as well as a database that told me everything that I needed to know. Color theory and the actual process of writing an icon were acquired through sheer effort and prayer that my efforts not go to waste, as well as time. I also was a risk taker, trying any method on the mere basis that it had been done before and maybe it would work with me. Every icon I've ever done I've always tried something new, whether it be a new color, a difference in how I draw the icon, or even what I have in my room as I write. While I've never done anything that wasn't acrylic I would be willing to dip into egg tempera, because any and all methods can teach you something about your medium, yourself, and God. Really, the only way to learn any of these things is to keep an open mind and pray like mad that you're not crazy for mixing egg into your acrylic paints because you'd heard of how bright egg in paint was. That experiment... didn't work out so well. There were so many egg yolk chunks in the paint...
Obedience, humility, guidance, prayer, trial and error--it sounds like the blueprint for success. What style of iconography do you most connect with right now?
I'm experimenting with the Russian style of iconography at the moment, with it's transparent layers of paint building one upon another. It's a style that has a lot of subtleties of color that I simply adore painting, and as time goes by I hope I just get better and better at the techniques. I'm a fan of Andrei Rublev, the writer of the ever famous Trinity icon, and of his master, Theophanes the Greek. Both of them were masters of transparency and color, and I've been looking to them a lot for inspiration these days. I can't think of two better iconographers in all of history to look to, honestly. They're the bar of excellence.
What do you hope to accomplish with your iconography?
You know what's funny? I haven't the faintest clue. It's like being asked when you're five  (or fifteen) years old what you want to do with your life: you just find yourself blanking and hoping that that's not a bad thing. Honestly, I have no idea. I know what I'd like it to do for me: I'd like to be able to make a living off of it, to paint churches and houses and whatever else God wants me to put it on, and to live off of my art until I die of old age or exhaustion, whichever comes first. But what would I like to do with it? Whatever God wants me to, He's the one who got me into this mess in the first place, I'd certainly like to think He's got a plan! But for now I'll just keep doing whatever I'm pointed at next.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in pursuing iconography?
If by pursuing iconography you mean writing an icon, just to see what it's like, I'd say go do it. Go find a workshop, listen to the instructor, and pray your heart and hands out. Iconography is a very revealing thing, and doing an icon can do a lot of good for someone. I've always thought that everyone should do at least one icon in their life, because of the spiritual rewards for doing so.
If by pursuing iconography you mean "I think it's my vocation and I should do it," I'd give a few words of caution and encouragement. Caution because iconography is truly the hardest thing I've ever attempted in my life. It is long, heartbreaking, boring, infuriating, I could go on and on about how discouraged I've become because of my flaws that show up in the icon. But if it's your vocation and if you truly enjoy it then don't ever, but ever give up. God uses the icons in ways that we can't even begin to understand to show us where we need to go next, and if you honestly look at the images and ask God to help you interpret them He will. Some of the greatest blessings in my life have come about because of the persistence I've given to this, the highest form of art I can imagine, and if you give it the time and the prayer that it deserves God will reward you. Don't ever forget He loves you as you start on your fifth icon, and the honeymoon feelings start to vanish. Don't ever forget that He loves you as you start on your fifteenth, and you have no idea how you're going to draw a full standing figure when drawing a circle can be a challenge. Do not forget He loves you and you'll come out just fine.
As I mentioned before, you now have an icon studio called Pilgrim Iconography. Where can people go to see or purchase icons you've written?
Well, I have a website, www.pilgrimstudios.blogspot.com. You'll be able to see a gallery of my work as well as various articles I've written on iconography. If you want to order shoot me an email at pilgrimstudios@gmail.com. I charge relatively little since, being a college student, my expenses aren't that high. So if you want something please don't hesitate to ask! I'll be more than happy to work out something that'll make everyone happy. I also sell prints of two of my icons: Christ the Savior and St. Therese of Lisieux, and those are for $25. Either way, check out the website. I hope you like it.
Thank you, Nathan!

Talented Tuesdays is a feature which focuses on art, architecture, music, culture, food, and the running of the domestic church. User submitted questions and solutions are welcomed.


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