I had the opportunity to write this icon in Christian community this year. This is a picture of the icon I painted.
As an artist and an art professor, I was cautioned by members of the icon writing group, that artists often struggle in these settings.
In the process of icon writing, there are steps and moments of great prayer, care, and attention.
For a long time I have enjoyed the practice of contemplative prayer, speaking of my work in the studio as a manual act of contemplative prayer. Usually these images are painted on found wood, rough and flawed. The image of the Guardian Angel I paint is simple and sincere. A background, an upside-down teardrop shape, then wings, head, halo, and heart all in white. The prayers are for comfort, hope, healing, love, compassion, and joy wherever they find a place to light. There have now been well over 10,000 of these Guardians painted and shared in our community. Christmas is the busy season for these paintings, often given as gifts. I joked with my fellow icon writers that these Guardians might just well be "redneck icons."
The purpose of an icon is also very different than the purpose of a painting.
The icon is meant to be an object that is sacred. The icon is not something that is prayed "to" in worship, it is an image that is prayed "through"-- a window or a glimpse into the divine -- a mode to show God to the faithful.
As the son of the Southern Baptist church, that was not a part of my rearing in the Christian faith. Icons were not considered glimpses of God, but barriers to God equivalent to idols. In particular, prayers to Mary or the Saints were thought to be misdirected. If we can call directly on Jesus, why go through a sort of heavenly
bureaucratic line up? Baptists make the direct call to the big boss, no middle management needed. Very democratic, I suppose.
I was drawn to this image of the Guadalupe icon for several reasons. The first was that it is wildly popular in Hispanic communities. At the flea market, on tattoos, and on air fresheners, Guadalupe is well loved by ordinary people. In that way, it seemed approachable for me.
In fact, the origin story of this image is really interesting. The story goes that a peasant farmer named Juan Diego, not really someone who had much clout in the 1500's. A widower ripe for a midlife crisis, Juan Diego saw a vision of Mary near what we would call Mexico City. At that time, it was a hillside that had been a sacred place to the people in Aztec culture. This was a time of great cultural transition, and it could be argued, (and has been frequently) that neither the Spanish Conquistadors, the Catholic Church, nor the Aztec civilization were all that helpful to the common Mexican farmer.
So Mary tells Juan Diego to go tell the Archbishop to build a church on this hill. Juan Diego does this. The bishop gets down to brass tacks. He needed Mary to send him a sign if he was to believe the hallucinations of a farmer who may have just been hitting the mescaline.
Juan Diego is afraid to return to the hill, being caught between a bishop and a queen is enough to make any pawn feel threatened at any angle. Even as he seeks to avoid Mary, she calls to him. She sends him up to the top of the hill to fetch some Spanish roses, not your typical sight in that time or place. He gathers them in his cloak, a cactus-fiber tilma. When he returns to Mary, she arranges the flowers in the tilma, and tells Juan Diego not to show anyone the roses until he sees the Archbishop.
He runs off to do her bidding, and after some grief from his entourage, Juan Diego opens his robe to show the roses to the Archbishop. There are roses, but also the legendary image of Our Lady of Guadalupe emblazoned on the cloak, Mary, the Mother of God.
The Archbishop gets the message, Mary gets her church, and Juan Diego loses the shirt off his back. The peasant's tilma with the miraculous image still resides in the church on Tepeyac Hill. Juan Diego gets to be a saint long after his death so it probably is a win-win.
As we wrote the icon, I asked a friend who knows this story and liberation theology why this image is so popular. I thought it could be seen as a tool for oppressing millions. Her opinion stuck with me. "This image is not something the church gave to the people, this is something a peasant gave the church. Our Lady of Guadalupe is sign that says even the poorest of us can have a direct encounter with the divine."
That sounds like the story of Mary, away in a manger I sang about as a Baptist kid. The ordinary becomes sacred. God is born to be with us. We should not fear what God continues to do for the poor and the oppressed.
In that way, maybe my Guardian angels are redneck icons written for a community of ordinary Joes and Juans. Maybe all icons are meant for the ordinary to remember that the divine is with us.
I am not sure how the story of my Guardians ends. I thought it would have ended long ago. Some months are tight, but so far I have not lost my shirt.
I am no peasant farmer, in fact I am a college faculty member. I am in a position envied by many in a field that is strewn with adjuncts and part-timers. I am certain some of them see my paintings and recognize the miraculous nature of how I wound up making a living doing these little angel paintings.
I often hear sharp criticisms about the way I teach and the quality of the work my students produce. My educational philosophy privileges process over product. The joy of art is in the making, the art is in the work of making the mark not in the mark itself. I want my students to believe that proposals, experiments, explorations, risks, and reflections are equal to or greater than the individual finished work. I still want final products to be perfect.
When I look at the image of the Guadalupe, I see the journey of Juan Diego. He participated in the making of a powerful image. He held the materials in his hands. He followed the steps as instructed. The result was a transformative piece on a found object. Juan Diego arrived at a finished piece by following his intuition.
Some day, maybe an art historian will see value in the thousands of little scraps of wood spread around the buckle of the Bible Belt as something worth considering. Probably not.
I have to hold the materials. I have to follow the steps in faith. I have to pray that what I do can make a difference where I am. That is the life of the artist, I suppose.
When I brought my icon home it met with mixed reviews. My mom said she wanted one. She said it is different than my other work. Mom is hard to read. My brother Scott asked me three times if I had painted it myself, perhaps a commentary on the quality of work that he thinks I can muster with a brush, or a suggestion that the image was not mine to paint. He is hard to read. My wife, Patrice said it was amazing. I heard this as supportive. I was hard of hearing.
On Thursday, feeling the impulse to share it, I picked it up and took it to Fr. Jim at St. Christopher's in Spartanburg. He was very kind and gracious. We discussed it as a piece that might play a role in the life of the parish, perhaps welcoming new voices into our life as a congregation.
Last night, Patrice and I were on a date. I told her about my struggles with my art, my teaching, and my own vocational fears. I mentioned the the icon workshop had stirred up question for me in many areas. I told her I had given it to Father Jim and she looked astonished. I soon learned that she did not intend for this piece to be released into the world the way my Guardians so often take flight. This was an image she held sacred. A symbol of her effort to support me in my winding journey in faith and in art. It was a part of my legacy she intended to protect. Quickly an e-mail was drafted to the priest, setting the course for the image to return home.
Fr. Jim did not bat an eye in returning it to her.
Patrice could see the value in the process and the beauty in the end result. She has helped me hold the materials, and keep them organized in my studio, no small miracle. She has been my companion on this long journey of prayer and art, faith and vocation. She is the reason I have a shirt or two without paint stains down the front.
Patrice helps me remember that we share this work and the objects that result.
As my Guardians fly out the door this season, I am thankful for the mothers I have known. Protective, supportive, defenders of the smallest of us, it is mothers who can help us understand how to carefully hold what we are given. If we listen they will tell us important steps in the process, how to arrange the composition, and when to share the final work with the critics. They can help us be who we are and live into what we can be.
Thank you mothers, full of grace.
I believe we are each made in God's own image. God has a lot of different looks, but all our images are God's, and all of them are still in process.