Heather Williams is an artist in Olympia, WA who is an iconographer in the Orthodox tradition. We connected with each other by email several months ago through St. Placid Priory and even though she only lives an hour away I haven’t had the chance to meet her in person yet, even though she has graciously extended the invitation to me to visit her art studio. She has also offered icon writing ateliers in the past which I hope next time I might be able to participate in as I would love to learn the basics of this amazing art and prayer form.
Heather took some time to respond to my questions and share some of her creative wisdom and beautiful sacred images with us:
“For the invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images.”
-John of Damascus, On Holy Images
What is your primary medium?
When I write icons I work in acrylics. My other work is mixed media and acrylics.
How do you experience the connection between spirituality and creativity?
When I paint an icon, I work as a scribe, which is to say I follow the canons and traditions of Orthodoxy, not my own muse. In Orthodox theology and tradition, icons are the Gospels ‘written’ in paint. Unlike the way an artist works, the iconographer doesn’t approach an icon with the attitude of “today I feel like painting the outer robe of the Theotokos* (The Blessed Mother, literally ‘God-Bearer’) hyacinth purple…maybe I’ll give her a nice smile, or paint her on a piano lid.” If you don’t get out of the way, you end with a holy image, not a real icon with sacramental presence. In traditional Byzantine iconography, there is little room for personal expression, which is not a bad thing–it’s a different type of energy that works through prayer and fasting. You get out of the way to serve the Mysteries.
When I work on my own artwork it’s another story, I am playing! The last 2 years I’ve been experimenting with a palette minus the earthtones of the icons; thalos, magentas and every quid color I could find. I worked in paint, pencil and pastels on recycled surfaces and experimented with encaustic. I’m fascinated with texture under glazes. Most of the art I created in that time has not been shown yet.
What sparked your spiritual journey?
As a young teenager living in southern Spain, I experienced a vivid, beautiful vision that revealed Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God, the invisible made visible. The gift of that vision has been the light of my journey.
What role does your spiritual practice have in your art making?
In my church, sacraments are actions that are an expression of the Word made Flesh–the unseen made seen. Nowhere on this earth is this more densely expressed than in the Orthodox Eucharistic liturgies. Layers of gold, scripture, singing, icons, clouds and smells of incense creates a place where the Kingdom of Heaven and the place of earth meet. You can really believe this is happening–it’s not a theological idea, it’s real. Every week this experience informs my art, my life.
A profound thank you to Heather for taking the time to share this wisdom. I was very moved by the idea that in the icon tradition, the artist must become the vehicle for this art, but must get fully out of the way to allow the art to “serve the Mysteries” and become a true “sacramental presence.” I like her distinction about the different kind of energy it draws upon. Sacred art is not about serving the ego, but the Sacred Mystery beating through creation. I also love the image of the “layers of gold, scripture, singing, icons, clouds and smells of incense creates a place where the Kingdom of Heaven and the place of earth meet.” Amen!
You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website here or her blog to see more of her beautiful art and to learn more about the sacred tradition of icons.
-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts
* added note: if you want to try praying with these icons, which is their primary purpose, visit this post of mine from the past on visio divina or holy seeing *