Thursday, November 12, 2009


"Sophia" by Betsy Walker

There is a show at the Dadian Gallery here at Wesley, Icons in the American Style with artists Peter Pearson and Thomas Xenakis (October 28 - December 18). Last week they had an opening, and a lecture about orthodox Christian icon painting.

Thomas Xenakis said in his artists statement, "The contemplative time during the painting of the icon is most important for me. I do not allow the product to overwhelm and pressure the process of the making.......the comfort and peace I glean in the writing of an icon transcends definition."

Mr. Xenakis is a contemporary contemplative, whose traditional icons are for him a way of praying. In quoting him, I put my own emphasis on "product" and "process". The word "product" encapsulates, for me, something so intrinsic to our economic and value system that it can quickly overwhelm and overshadow any form of authentic expression. We're bent on production, at ways to keep generating objects and means, at quotas and, under it all, commercial value (do I sound a bit world weary here?)......all of this can "de-soul" a work of its vital essence in no time at all. The vital essence is the process and intention immanent within its creation, and more subtly, the energies that become focused and generated as the "object" manifests in some kind of material form. Does that make sense?

Peter Pearson, in his artist's statement, says: "Ultimately, the best icons do not draw attention to themselves, but to God.........So the work of a faithful iconographer is not about anything other than creating an image that will invite and facilitate that movement."

In my studies of indigenous masks ( like the sacred mask traditions of Bali), my fascination with Navajo and Pueblo weaving, and traditional Icon arts, I see my own life-long quest for a spiritual meaning, and vitality, I have never found within the modern art world. A longing to discover the "holy" roots of art. I use parentheses for that word because I don't mean it in any denominational sense, but I do mean it in the mystical sense.

"Anima/Animus Icon" (2003)

A sacred mask, in traditional Balinese society, "belongs to the gods", is kept in the Temple except when used for ritual theatre, and were maintained, and protected, as "vessels for the divine". That inspired my 10 year project of making masks for the Goddess, my own devotional offering to the Divine. I think of the Navajo tradition of leaving some small piece of a rug flawed - because only Spider Woman is a perfect weaver.

Gold is the most highly valued metal in the world. When an icon is painted on a backdrop of gold, when a halo is created with gold leaf, and especially when an icon is framed in gold, using alchemical metaphor, the icon is saying that this vision is taking place against an ineffable background, infinitely precious and purified of "dross". To surround an icon with gold was to sanctify it, creating a window or portal into a sacred vision, a sacred space.

A sacred work of art can be a potent receptacle for energy. This was exactly why sacred masks in Bali were kept in the temples, and performers were anointed with holy water before and after using them. It's also why icons are often associated with special places of geomantic potency, such as sacred wells or caves.

Here's a wonderful commentary by Martin Gray, in his truly epic book, Sacred Earth: Places of Peace and Power. He is writing about the Black Madonna of Guadalupe, Spain, the object of a millenia of pilgrimages.

"It is important to consider the legendary description of the icon as having miraculous healing powers. How are these powers to be explained? The current author theorizes that the healing powers of certain icons, statues and images derive in part from their capacity to somehow function as both receptacles and conduits for some manner of spiritual or healing energy.

To grasp the implications of this concept, consider the matter of how physical objects, upon being exposed to various types of energy, may actually build up a charge of that energy and then radiate the energy back into the environment. For example, a stone after being removed from a fire continues to give off radiant heat, and a battery having been charged with electric energy thereafter has the capacity to conduct that energy into an electrical appliance. Perhaps, in some currently unexplained manner, sacred sites and sacred objects are able to gather, store, concentrate and radiate energy in a similar way."
He continues with,

"It seems possible that the so-called 'miraculous' healing icons somehow function as storage batteries for the prayer-transmitted spiritual energy of the millions of pilgrims who visit the sacred shrines. These ‘battery-icons,’ continuously charged over hundreds and often thousands of years, act as conduits and radiant sources of the energies they have stored, and it is these energies that are partially responsible for the 'miracles' of healing so often reported at the sacred sites." *

I love the author's use of the term "storage batteries" and receptacles, which affirms my own sense about the creation of sacred art for many years. As someone who used to make amulets for people with crystals, "charging" the crystals with intent as well as chosing the crystals, stones, colors and symbols to fit the needs of a particular client..............why should an icon, a sacred mask, a revered reliquary, not function as a crystal as well, "crystallizing" and recording psychic, geomantic, and emotional input?**

I am not saying in this entry that "all art" has to be sacred, all art has to have contemplative or spiritual intention. We would have a very dull world, with universal scapegoating and projection, if there was no room for the secular and profane. Heretics would be much in demand. But its no secret that modernism has gone way, way too far in the other direction.

We live in an increasingly de-sacralized world, a disposable world, to our collective sorrow and immediate peril. There are times when I feel overwhelmed with it, overwhelmed with the numbness and indifference, the "sound of silence."

"Tree of Life", Icon, 2005

Martin Gray
PO 4111
Sedona, AZ 86340

** I hate the hard edged cynicism people give to the "new age" explorations of the '80's. Yeah, there were certainly excesses, exploitations, and lots of naivete, but is there any public investigation that doesn't have these frailties? I have held many a crystal, and many a "talisman", in the palm of my hand and felt it change my affect and energy system. Radios and computers are basically utilizing crystals - "Silicon Valley"?

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