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Iconographer’s curiosity about God led to growing her faith through art

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Colette Kalvesmaki is trained in the ancient art of iconography, combining her knowledge of theology and her love of art to pass down stories of inspiration to future generations.

Growing up in a small town in a nonreligious family, she had a curiosity for God and religion that appeared in her late teens. It was not until after spending six months with a Protestant group in Japan at the age of 19, when she encountered God for herself.

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She discovered iconography after moving to Boston down the street from Russian iconographer, Ksenia Pokrovsky, whom she studied under for three years. She also earned a degree from St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, she explained what inspired her to learn the art of iconography.

“My faith,” she said.

Colette Kalvesmaki, a Byzantine iconographer in Washington, is seen in her studio in July. Photo: CNS/Tyler Orsburn
Colette Kalvesmaki, a Byzantine iconographer in Washington, is seen in her studio in July. Photo: CNS/Tyler Orsburn

“Initially, I didn’t necessarily like (iconography), but as I grew more in my faith, I learned more about it and learned more about what the icon actually meant to the faith and to the Eastern Church,” she continued. “It’s actually the banner of our faith, and is also a statement because Christ became man like us, (therefore) we can depict him. When I started realising all of the rich theology within the icon and the mystery within it, I felt like I was called to do it.”

Kalvesmaki and her family run the Centre for Byzantine Material Arts, a small gallery and workshop in Washington’s Brookland neighbourhood that displays authentic iconography available for purchase and hosts lessons for those interested in learning the centuries-old art form.

She explained that those who have seen her creations in the shop window have had varied reactions.

“It’s very interesting being here because we attract all kinds of people who don’t understand it and some people who have grown up with it, but don’t understand the meaning of it,” Kalvesmaki said. “I think once you understand that, you come to a place where you really want to know more about your faith and go deep into your faith because, it’s right here.”

After viewing the icons, she said some people are inspired to learn to make one themselves.

“I think people look at it right away and they can see that it’s not of this world in a sense, and it’s something other and people are just drawn to it,” Kalvesmaki explained. “I think people who want to grow deeper in their faith want to take these classes and want to sit down and make a bunch of these. We teach you how to do that here, step by step.”

Colette Kalvesmaki works on an icon in her art studio in Washington. Photo: CNS/Tyler Orsburn
Colette Kalvesmaki works on an icon in her art studio in Washington. Photo: CNS/Tyler Orsburn

Kalvesmaki offers lessons to accommodate artists of different skill levels.

“We have intensive courses and we have private courses, but then there are also people who I take on as apprentice. Those are all different categories,” she said.

During each lesson, Kalvesmaki teaches the artist the process of putting together an icon by walking them through the materials and technique.

Each lesson opens and closes with prayer, and each artist is encouraged to get to know each saint whom they will be depicting.

“A typical day for a private lesson would be that someone would come in for an hour and I ask them if they want to learn how to prepare the board, because I teach how to prepare the board, how to make the gesso (paint mixture with binder), and they work their way up,” she said.

“We start very simple on the face. There are only two poses, one more or less frontal, and the other, a three quarters view. We usually start with an angel, a saint, a soldier saint, or a bishop, and then we work our way up to Mary and then Christ. When we reach Christ, we do the gilding. By the time we’ve reached that ability, we know how to paint, and we are creating Christ, respectfully,” she added.

Kalvesmaki also explained how creating and teaching others the art of iconography has allowed her grow deeper in her faith.

“Doing it, I am constantly reading about the saints and constantly praying to them,” she said. “Teaching it is kind of a wrench up because you have to live a Christian life. You want to pass on this faith through the icon to whoever is coming toward you. It urges me to grow constantly in Christ and to really live life on the edge with him and not to compromise. I’m constantly challenged to grow deeper in my faith. In just doing this, I’m drawn to that.”

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