DE PERE — Have you ever felt the need to pray in a new way? Perhaps you turned to the Bible, some spiritual books, a video or maybe joined a prayer group. Did you think about painting?
Nancy Gezella, a member of St. Francis Xavier Parish in De Pere, did.
Gezella, trained in interior and mechanical design, had also taken many art and art business courses. She worked in the design department for KI, the Green Bay contract furniture company, for many years before going into art. She started making handmade paper and mixed media in 1991, and later moved into contemporary art. Eventually, she dove in full-time.
“Then, as my faith started to grow and deepen,” she said, “my desire to give my art to the Lord, and to express my faith through my art, grew until I couldn’t ignore it anymore.”
So, in 2007, when she saw an article in the local paper about an icon writing class, it all changed.
“I thought, ‘Well, it’s spiritual. Maybe it will inspire me,’” Gezella said. It did.
Today, some 40 icons later, she is an accomplished iconographer. Much of her work has been for private commissions and she also sells prints of her icons. Ten of her icons can be seen at St. Agnes Church in Green Bay, where they were formally installed last year. Those icons include images of St. Agnes, St. Michael and the Sacred Heart.
Icon writing — since an icon is more of a living prayer than an art piece, it is referred to as “written” not “painted” — has a long history in Eastern-rite churches. While less known to Western-rite Catholics, Gezella, who presents at various conferences, finds that interest in icons is growing.
“I love that,” she said. “I am always amazed at how many people know about icons or are attracted to them.”
Icons are images meant to create an encounter between the viewer and the spirit of the saint depicted and, ultimately, God.
One icon writer, Linette Martin, explained it this way: “The pictures are not there just to be looked at as though the worshippers were in an art museum; they are designed to be doors between this world and another world, between people and the Incarnate God, his mother, or his friends, the saints.”
Creating icons follows specific rules. To call them “art” is loosely correct, since they involve media, like paint. However, unlike Western religious art, there is little “artistic license” in creating icons. Because of this, you learn to “read” an icon, the way you might read a spiritual story.
For Gezella, creating an icon is like prayer — she prays over each icon as she writes it. The prayer may be for the person who commissioned it, or just generalized prayer for those who will see it and pray with it. She describes it as similar to making a prayer shawl — which she also has done.
“Once I start,” she said of creating icons, “it’s incredible. It just calms me and brings me to a very spiritual place.”
Today, Gezella also teaches icon writing classes: one 10-week class each January in her studio in De Pere, and one full week retreat each fall at Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz. The 10-week class costs $450. This fall’s retreat cost is yet to be determined.
However, Gezella doesn’t think cost deters people — the wood board on which an icon is written costs her $115 — but rather the time commitment. Each icon takes about 40 hours to complete. And it’s is a very painstaking process.
The boards that hold the images are quartersawn (for stability) from poplar or birch, kiln-dried and braced with red oak to prevent warping.
Each board is then covered with linen — “to represent Christ’s burial shroud” — and 10 layers of handmade gesso, made from a combination of paint pigment, chalk and binder. Gesso’s white color represents God. Then the icon’s image is traced and incised on the board, and a liquid clay base mixed with glue — called “bole” — is applied as a base to anything that will be gilded. Gezella uses red earth clay. Finally, everything is sanded to a mirror finish before gold leaf and paints can be applied.
The gold is 24-karat and applied in a fine sheet.
“You breathe on the clay — which symbolizes the breath of the Holy Spirit and God’s new creation — and that adheres the gold to the clay,” Gezella explained.
The paint is also traditional: egg tempera, made with fresh egg yolk, water and vinegar which is then mixed with ground minerals of various colors. The paints are applied — from dark to light — until there are seven layers. The base color, called roskirsh — a Russian word meaning “beautiful chaos” — symbolizes the creation of humans from clay.
The paint application alternates between highlights and floats (a thinner wash of the paint).
“I love it as symbolizing our journey,” Gezella said of these color layers. She sees the bolder colors “almost like sin, and then we need to add (God’s) graces again (the thinner float colors). Then we sin and then we need the graces. It’s never a straight path for us on a spiritual journey and that’s kind of reflected in how you paint an icon as well.”
When each icon is completed, it is blessed. If an icon has been commissioned, Gezella has that person present for the blessing. For icons she does for herself, she prefers “to have it done on the feast day of the icon, if possible.”
Since each icon’s image follows a traditional style, it includes elements from Russian or Greek traditions. For example, three stars on Mary’s images represent her perpetual virginity: before, during and after Christ’s birth. The color red symbolizes humanity, while blue represents heaven and the realm of divinity. So Mary may appear robed in red (the color of her humanity) or blue (heaven’s color, symbolizing the Holy Spirit’s descent upon her).
With newer saints, the images are not so set by tradition. So Gezella gains more artistic license.
For instance, her icon of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta includes a pencil. This, Gezella explained, is from a quote of the saint: “I am a little pencil in God’s hands. He does the thinking. He does the writing.”
People often have trouble deciding which icon to bring into their own home. How to choose?
“It’s good to start with your patron saint, or a saint that you like,” Gezella advises. “Then get an image of Christ or Mary.”
She also suggests having a prayer corner at home, and using a candle or prayer light.
“Having candles lit — a luminary of some kind — is a very spiritual part of praying with icons,” she said, “to have that flame, representing prayer, before it.”
After writing so many icons, does Gezella have a favorite?
“The one I‘m working on,” she answered with a laugh. “How do you pick a favorite child?”
But she does admit that St. Catherine of Siena is her favorite saint and that she gets many requests for St. Therese of Lisieux, whom she hasn’t done. Yet.
Gezella sees herself writing many more icons, because iconography has become part of her.
“I do it because that’s what the Lord gave me to do,” she said. “I remember that somebody at one of the conferences told me, ‘Nancy, this is the mission God gave you. So figure out how to talk about your mission.’ Now I just let it come. That’s the part about listening to the Holy Spirit. He gave me the gift, so how can I refuse to use it?”