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At St. Joseph, artwork with meaning

A member of St. Joseph's works on an icon Tuesday morning. The icons depict Jesus, saints and sacred events.1 / 2
Rita Corrigan, Marlien Sigtermans and Geraldine Brady concentrate on writing icons. While they use paint brushes to create the depictions, the process is called writing because icons are considered visual scripture.2 / 2

An icon is a window to heaven -- a visual scripture written through a meditative and prayerful process. St. Joseph's pastor Paul Jarvis has long appreciated the deeper meaning of the art, and has a collection.

Last year he used them during a service at St. Joseph's, and it got parishioner Sue Duggan to thinking she could paint the depictions. She told Jarvis as much, and he encouraged her to do it.

An Icon is a religious work of art. The painted pieces usually depict portraits of Jesus Christ, Mary or saints but can also show narratives about sacred depictions. The art form is common in Eastern Christian cultures.

Duggan had no idea what she was getting herself into. Writing icons is a complex process that involves painting many layers. Each step has a religious significance dating back centuries, and each piece takes at least 20 hours to complete.

Not one to shy from a challenge, Duggan took on the project and started a group to help write icons for the church. The group of 12 to 16 people meets every Tuesday to work on the paintings

"The women and men depicted all have something that can help us, inspire us in being the saints we were called or missioned to be here in this realm," said Jarvis.

To help guide the process, Duggan enlisted the help of Ulla Ahtaja. For many years Ahtaja lived in Lappeenranta, Finland, on the Russian border where the art form is more common. She took several classes on the subject and has written icons ever since.

The process begins with a board or section of wood, which symbolizes the tree of life. The wood is treated by applying linen, a representation of the burial of Jesus. Then gesso, a marble-and-chalk powder suspended in glue, is applied in layers. Then the writing of the icon begins. The paints are made of natural materials. The materials represent all of creation, said Duggan.

The process is called writing rather than painting because the pieces are considered visual scriptures, Jarvis said.

Writing icons is different from other types of painting because the artist goes from dark to light, said Ahtaja. The process is symbolic of the Christian transformation from sin to forgiveness and everlasting life. Each group meeting starts with a prayer and while there is food and fellowship, the process can also be meditative for the group members.

According to an introduction on icon painting, no one can accept ownership or credit for creating an icon. In essence, the Holy Spirit paints the icons through the hands of many individuals. While there are a few artists in the group, most of the people do not have any formal art training.

"This is God," said Linda Haugan, a member of the group pointing to one of the icons.

Duggan said by time the group has finished writing an icon, the piece will have been worked on by most of the people in the group. The group has completed 16 so far and is working on 19 others. Each one takes about 28 hours to complete.

The group is making the icons for several reasons. First, the beautiful paintings are used during worship services at the church.

A more important job for the icons, though, is the role they play outside the church. Jarvis said members of St. Joseph's Samaritan Ministry take the icons to people homebound and in nursing homes to show love and provide comfort. Members of the ministry visit with the people and lend them icons to serve as reminder that they are not alone.

Pastoral care minister Shirley Rowley, who leads the Samaritan Ministry, said she has heard lots of compliments about the icons.

Going forward, the ministry wants to create seasonal cards for people to make and send to those in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes or homebound. Jarvis also hopes to engage more people to take part in working in the ministry.

"Christianity is not a spectator's sport," said Jarvis.

The group hopes to create packages for people unable to come to the iconography sessions. The packages will include all the supplies needed to make cards from photographic images of St. Joe's icons.

Duggan said she's amazed by what's come of her impulsive thought and the efforts of the group. Anyone can get involved with the group. For more information contact Duggan at 651-423-3147.

Emily Zimmer
Emily Zimmer has worked as a staff writer for the Rosemount Town Pages since 2007. She has a degree in journalism from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Outside of work, Emily enjoys running, reading and gardening. You can follow Emily's gardening adventures at the Areavoices blog East of Weedin'
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