By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 26, 2019
ATLANTA—Every painting session at Emmanuel Studio begins in prayer. Austere faces of holy women and men hanging on the walls surround the artists.
The class members, led by instructor Nancy Ewing, recite a prayer before picking up a brush to paint an icon.
The painters petition God to “guide the hands of thy unworthy servant so that I may worthily and perfectly portray thine icon, that of thy Mother and all the saints, for the glory, joy, and adornment of thy holy church.” They ask God to forgive their sins and those who will venerate the icons.
The dining room of Ewing’s home in northwest Atlanta doubles as a studio for this centuries-old art.
These women are meticulous. A light and a magnifying glass helps them scrutinize their work. They examine a print of the 13th-century Byzantine crucifix to guide their handiwork.
Lisa Ward focuses before touching the wood. There is only a smudge of paint on her brush. “You feel like you are not doing anything because you are using so little paint,” she said, “but you stand up and you can really see it.”
A view of the spiritual world
Tradition credits St. Luke, the gospel writer, as the first icon painter. Many believers are unfamiliar with the conventions of icons, although they are common in Eastern Catholic churches. Icons at St. John Chrysostom Church, Atlanta, a Melkite church, cover the entryway and sanctuary of the church.
Ewing said the richness of icons becomes clear once people understand the theology of the style.
“It is stylized and everything tends to have a meaning,” she said.
The skewed view shown in icons is purposeful because it takes you to a world where our senses do not interpret what is seen, she said. An image with an unusual perspective is to remind the viewer they are looking at the spiritual world, not what they see out a window, she said.
Susan Monroe, 55, found the unfamiliar style hard to relate to when icons were showcased years ago at her parish, the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta. Her perspective changed after painting them for more than two years.
“I love the icon style. I know how much work and how much prayer goes into making one,” said Monroe.
A gradual pace
Prayer and painting go hand in hand in the studio. If people are late to the class, they will first go to Ewing’s prayer room, surrounded by icons, to collect themselves before sitting down.
Ward, 63, a small business owner and member of the Cathedral of Christ the King, studied art in college but hasn’t done much since beyond small arts and crafts projects. Working with Ewing makes any concerns about inexperience vanish.
“Mine are not that good. But I am totally happy with it,” she said. “Through God, I am able to do it.”
The pace of the work takes some adjustment. Nothing moves fast, including the teacher’s sprawling white Bernese mountain dog Mike, short for Michelangelo. He is named after the archangel, but his marbled coat reminds them of the famed artist’s skill with marble.
“It takes a long time. It is just a gradual change,” said Monroe, a painter who uses watercolor to paint portraits.
Monroe is a prekindergarten teacher and an artist. Her depictions of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Michael the Archangel are a part of her spiritual life now. “I had no idea I’d get so much out of them. Having those images make me feel closer to (the saints),” she said.
The small classes are as much about fellowship among the artists, who typically work in quiet, contemplative settings, as they are about painting. Students cover the small cost for supplies and donate to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association to help its ministry in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, where icons are part of the heritage.
The Holy Spirit speaking
Icons do not celebrate individuality, unlike western art. These are holy depictions already, Ewing said, as she circled the table to offer advice.
“Why would you think you can make something holier? The merit is staying true to what is already holy,” she said. “There is so much theology behind this all.”
The skill for an artist is in the brush strokes and how the painting resembles the original, Ewing said.
“We are not art forgers. You can never get rid of your individual hand,” she explained. “You are not trying to be original. You are trying to be faithful.”
Growing up outside New York City, she comes from a Catholic family. Ewing, 63, studied art history in college and later worked as a lawyer. Ewing and her husband, Jim, who later joined the church, have two grown children. They attend Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.
She stopped her law practice to raise a family. Attending daily Mass while dropping off her children for school was a turning point for her faith.
“I was grabbed by the Eucharist. I credit daily Mass with the Eucharist speaking directly into my heart,” said Ewing.
She painted Christmas ornaments and other artwork for a time. Then one of her friends learned of Ewing’s family roots in Romania and encouraged her to learn about icons. Ewing knows her great-grandfather and older relatives farther back served as Eastern Catholic priests and used icons in their worship. Ewing toured the Eastern European country and visited a relative’s church and grave.
“It just was like this little bell. It was really like the Holy Spirit was speaking through her,” she said. “It’s like somebody plucked a string and it just rang true.”
She studied icons in 2007 for the first time. A week’s stay in a retreat house in Canada for her introduction was transformative.
“We took a light out of one of our bedrooms, one of the two lamps in our little retreat room,” recalled Ewing. “We put it on the table between us. We had some light at night. In these old Victorian religious houses, which is really what they all are, a lot of it is just as dark as the tomb. It just was the most amazing experience.”
She and other Atlanta painter friends before long were holed up in a house immersed in the work “all day every day for 10 days. I did one and a half icons.”
Ewing treasures creating icons. She’s finished some 50 icons, with many in unfinished stages.
“When I do this I’m able to just see a little bit of the divine finger of God in his creation. My hand is being used by God to create his saints, his mother,” she said.
Ewing shares her art knowledge with the students, along with the Christ the King Cathedral’s Women’s Bible Study.
“Icons attract because of beauty, because of the beauty of the sacred art. We are drawn to them and they, in turn, draw us to the source of beauty, which is God,” she said. “I’ve heard it said that beauty is the gateway drug into the transcendence of God because beauty leads to goodness and goodness leads to truth.”
Read about the icons of St. John Chrysostom Melkite Catholic Church in Atlanta in a 2006 story by Georgia Bulletin Photographer Michael Alexander.