LAFAYETTE — St. Elizabeth Icon Studio is set back off the road on a quiet wooded lot, and the stained-glass panes in Faye Drobnic’s studio windows give it a cathedral feel.
Her three students this morning — Teresa Meza, Pam Zuschlag and Melanie Moreno — are bent over their work in silent concentration. Moreno has driven from Lake Charles for the class. Small groups meet twice a month, private students three times.
Drobnic began her study of iconography 22 years ago and has been teaching since 2010.
“When I started, there was no one else,” she says.
“Iconography is a totally different art form from other visual arts in the sense that it doesn’t focus on creativity,” says Drobnic. “It focuses on the faithful transmission of the tradition of the Christian faith.”
The legitimacy of icons dates to a council of the Catholic Church held at Nicaea in Asia Minor in 787, when an icon was declared the visual word of God.
“The Gospel in line and color,” says Drobnic.
Those who aspire to paint icons are faced with three tasks: First, to study the ancient Byzantine icons and what they mean while learning the precepts of religion; second, to master the artistic skills and techniques, and, third, to continually develop a spiritual life of prayer.
“This work is rooted in prayer,” says Drobnic. “You cannot have one without the other.”
As she talks, she pauses briefly to advise a student, “Put some more dark indigo into it.”
The spirituality of the iconographer is reflected in the icon, and, although an intangible, it is best defined as a sense of the sacred.
Drobnic gives the example of one of her students, a retired priest, who did a rendition of the Archangel Michael.
“It was technically rough, like a novice would do,” says Drobnic. “But it had a depth of spirituality that took my breath away. Sometimes it won’t be the most beautiful or refined, but it will carry an even more powerful quality.”
Images mass marketed as icons will often lack spirituality, she says.
Drobnic’s students adhere to the same strict rules practiced for 16 centuries by iconographers, as each stage has meaning. First comes the hardwood, which is coated with gesso until it is white and smooth, signifying purity. The painter incises the outlines of the figures, making marks similar to writing, and drawing of this type is considered the equivalent to the writing of Scripture, thus removing the distinction between word and image.
After the under-drawing is completed, the paints may be applied, but as the colors also have meaning, they’re applied in a specific order: darkest colors first, browns and reds, then green, yellow and light red, and finally finishing with a transparent glaze. Whites are applied last, and backgrounds are gold. The process enacts the progression from darkness into divine light and rules of representation also apply — figures must be rendered in accordance with centuries-old models. Perspective and realism are of no concern.
There is a science to the medium. Little is commercially manufactured. The egg tempera used is a basic mixture of egg yolk and white wine mixed with dry pigments. Venetian red is red dirt, blue ochre is earthy, also. Many pigments are ground minerals, such as lapis blue, while others are vegetable in nature.
Today, Meza is working on The Baptism of the Lord and Zuschlag is laboring over a huge icon of The Trinity.
“It’s a monster,” Zuschlag says. “I had trouble from the beginning with the board and gesso, but it’s finally coming around.”
Moreno is working on the Archangel Raphael.
“The challenge is the proportion. It varies according to the pigment. It’s not simple,” she says.
Drobnic’s students use a horizontal floating technique with no easels due to the liquid nature of the paint, and paint in the Russian style of 15th century celebrated iconographer Andrei Rublev. The process is labor intensive, and Zuschlag has been working on hers for about 18 months.
Drobnic calls it more of a vocation than a profession.
“If you want to get rich, sell computers,” she says with a laugh. “The money’s not here.”
Drobnic keeps some of her icons, gives others to valued family members and friends, accepts commissions and also sells her work.
“Some of us sell, some do not. You cannot buy and sell prayer. Icons are really written in service to the church — the union of Christians, not the hierarchical church — and when you ‘transfer stewardship,’ the money that’s exchanged is for the laborer’s compensation. ‘The laborer is due his wage,’” she says, paraphrasing Timothy 5:18.
Meza’s icons remain in her family; Zuschlag’s are donated to Sacred Heart Church in Broussard, and Moreno displays her collection in her husband’s office.
“We’re 20th century Catholic women,” says Drobnic. “We see ourselves as instruments. Very imperfect instruments, but instruments.”
“We ask the Spirit to guide our hands.”