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Iconography highlighted at summer art exhibit

August 11, 2008

Iconography highlighted at summer art exhibit

Colorful paintings adorn the walls of the University Gallery, and in the center of the room sit several glass cases filled with scrolls, painted wood objects and parchment Bibles. The exhibit, “Picturing Faith: Continuing Traditions of Iconography and Illumination,” opened July 28 and runs through Aug. 22. It features the work of accomplished iconographer Kathy Sievers, along with pieces from the collection of Wang Center director Neal Sobania and his wife, Liz. The exhibit was inspired by the Tacoma Art Museum’s “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible,” explained Ed Inch, dean of the School of Arts and Communication. PLU’s exhibit depicts a similar topic, religious illustrations, in a way that resonates with the campus.

“It’s probably one of the most ambitious things we’ve ever done,” Inch said.

Visiting assistant religion professor Brenda Ihssen will address the historical and artistic aspects of Eastern Orthodox iconography on Aug. 14 at 5 p.m. in the gallery. She’ll discuss iconography as the “painting” of theology and explore its key artistic influences, figures and themes, as well as how icons are employed in Orthodox Christianity.

Sievers’ work continues the centuries-old tradition of the Christian icon, a form with deep roots in the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian churches. Icons are the word of God in images, she explained. When “writing an icon,” iconographers must follow the canon of iconography, specific guidelines that determine which colors are used, the length of hair or beard, and how images can or cannot be combined.

All of Sievers’ pieces in the University Gallery were created on wood panels. Some were painted with the traditional medium, egg tempera, while others were painted in acrylic. The religious figures she paints – Mary, Mother of God, Jesus Christ, Saint Paul – are her interpretations, but all must fit with the “rules.”

“When I’m finished, when I look at them, I think: Where did this come from?” she said. The true author of each icon is the Holy Spirit working through her hand, she explains.

Sievers has been an artist all her life, studying it in high school and college. She didn’t start working in iconography until several years after graduating from college with an art degree. She attended Mt. Angel Abbey’s Artists Workshop, now the Iconography Institute, and has been working as an iconographer ever since.

“I fell in love with the mystery, theology, spirituality,” Sievers said.

The PLU exhibit also showcases pieces from the collection of the Sobanias, including icons, amulets, illuminated scrolls and parchment Bibles from the Christian communities of Ethiopia. Neal Sobania began collecting the pieces during his four years as a Peace Corps volunteer and staff member in Ethiopia.

While it is unusual for the gallery to host an exhibit in the summer, SOAC saw an excellent opportunity to use the two related collections to connect with the broader community, said Heather Mathews, assistant art professor and the exhibit’s curator.

“It’s a way to raise our profile in the community,” Mathews said. “It’s also the beginning of building the gallery as a more integrated part of the art program.”

With the advent of an art history major being offered in the department this fall, Mathews said the gallery presents an opportunity to give students hands-on curating experience. The gallery has always been important to the department, she said, but the new major presents an opportunity to have it more closely integrated with the curriculum.

The University Gallery is located in Ingram Hall. During the summer, it is open Monday through Friday, from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free.