Iconographer's curiosity about God led to growing her faith through art

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Allana Haynes

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Colette Kalvesmaki is trained in the ancient art of
iconography, combining her knowledge of theology and her love of art to pass
down stories of inspiration to future generations.

Growing up in a small town in a nonreligious family,
she had a curiosity for God and religion that appeared in her late teens. It
was not until after spending six months with a Protestant group in Japan at the
age of 19, when she encountered God for herself.

She discovered iconography after moving to Boston
down the street from Russian iconographer, Ksenia Pokrovsky, whom she studied under for three
years. She also earned a degree from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, she
explained what inspired her to learn the art of iconography.

“My faith,” she said.

“Initially, I didn’t necessarily like (iconography),
but as I grew more in my faith, I learned more about it and learned more about
what the icon actually meant to the faith and to the Eastern Church,” she
continued. “It’s actually the banner of our faith, and is also a statement
because Christ became man like us, (therefore) we can depict him. When I
started realizing all of the rich theology within the icon and the mystery
within it, I felt like I was called to do it.”

Kalvesmaki and her family run the Center for Byzantine Material Arts,
a small gallery and workshop in Washington’s Brookland neighborhood that
displays authentic iconography available for purchase and hosts lessons for
those interested in learning the centuries-old art form.

She explained that those who have seen her creations
in the shop window have had varied reactions.

“It’s very interesting being here because we attract
all kinds of people who don’t understand it and some people who have grown up
with it, but don’t understand the meaning of it,” Kalvesmaki said. “I think
once you understand that, you come to a place where you really want to know
more about your faith and go deep into your faith because, it’s right here.”

After viewing the icons, she said some people are
inspired to learn to make one themselves.

“I think people look at it right away and they can
see that it’s not of this world in a sense, and it’s something other and people
are just drawn to it,” Kalvesmaki explained. “I think people who want to grow
deeper in their faith want to take these classes and want to sit down and make
a bunch of these. We teach you how to do that here, step by step.”

Kalvesmaki offers lessons to accommodate artists of
different skill levels.

“We have intensive courses and we have private
courses, but then there are also people who I take on as apprentice. Those are
all different categories,” she said.

During each lesson, Kalvesmaki teaches the artist the
process of putting together an icon by walking them through the materials and

Each lesson opens and closes with prayer, and each
artist is encouraged to get to know each saint whom they will be depicting.

“A typical day for a private lesson would be that
someone would come in for an hour and I ask them if they want to learn how to
prepare the board, because I teach how to prepare the board, how to make the
gesso (paint mixture with binder), and they work their way up,” she said.

“We start very simple on the face. There are only two
poses, one more or less frontal, and the other, a three quarters view. We
usually start with an angel, a saint, a soldier saint, or a bishop, and then we
work our way up to Mary and then Christ. When we reach Christ, we do the
gilding. By the time we’ve reached that ability, we know how to paint, and we
are creating Christ, respectfully,” she added.

Kalvesmaki also explained how creating and teaching
others the art of iconography has allowed her grow deeper in her faith.

“Doing it, I am constantly reading about the saints
and constantly praying to them,” she said. “Teaching it is kind of a wrench up
because you have to live a Christian life. You want to pass on this faith
through the icon to whoever is coming toward you. It urges me to grow
constantly in Christ and to really live life on the edge with him and not to
compromise. I’m constantly challenged to grow deeper in my faith. In just doing
this, I’m drawn to that.”

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Editor’s Note: Learn more about Kalvesmaki’s
iconography at www.sacredpresence.com/.

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