One of the icons painted this summer was Noah the Just. As a saint chosen to be part of the studio’s Icons at Home Project, and as an icon that I was planning to highlight in an article for Mortise & Tenon, it was one that I looked forward to on many different levels. What I didn’t foresee was that I would have the chance to paint in a little “ark” full of animals.
Making the icon began like most others, with prayer and study. Since Noah’s depiction isn’t common iconographically, there was a lot to consider in the work’s composition. Unlike an icon of Jesus Christ, where century after century has added essential details to include, Noah’s icon is rare and allows for more variation. But, there was still a lot within the iconographic tradition from which to draw. For example, in the Bible, Noah is the last of the pre-flood patriarchs, and such figures are usually depicted with long, curly hair over their shoulders (long hair being associated with great age for men).
However, Noah’s hair colour isn’t prescribed, and it seemed essential to encounter his strength even in his great age (after all, he is thought to have been around 525 years old when he started building the ark). The Cannon of Dionysius does not instruct on the colour of his hair. The great iconographer Manuel Panselinos painted Noah with white hair in his frescos of the Protaton church on Mount Athos. But, the anonymous Byzantine iconographers who created the mosaics in Basilica di San Marco did something interesting—they show him with light brown hair but with a white beard. By pairing brown hair and a white beard, he is both old and young, and a great agelessness is witnessed, and this was the direction that I took in making sketches of the icon.
Early on, it also became apparent that the patron hoped to have both the symbols of the ark and the rainbow present. Giving that the studio’s style aims to create icons with a peaceful simplicity, too many symbols can quickly become clutter. The solution was to work both of these into a single form held by Noah’s left hand, and the rendering of this came together nicely. Lastly, because Noah’s inclusion in the Icons at Home Project is in a home’s workshop, having a mallet in his right hand seemed especially appropriate as an object that would reference both the project and his work of building the ark. However, creating a simple stylization of such a hammer was more difficult than expected. And, while it took a dozen or so variations, in the end, it came together. With the drawing finished, work began on making the icon.
The basswood lumber was selected, planed and fashioned into an icon panel in the studio’s woodshop. Then layers of glue, cloth, and gesso were applied to its surface and stoned smooth. And, after that, the clay and gold leaf for gilding for applied. Then the first animal unexpectedly came to live in the studio.
About a month earlier, one of our hens had gone broody. While it was a little late in the year to be having chicks, the children were so excited that we decided to see how many would hatch. In the end, only one did. When the mother proved not to be very protective, and without a group of chicks to be included in, the other chickens picked mercilessly on this lone baby bird. We tried many things to keep the chick with the rest of the chickens, but we eventually decided to separate her from the flock. So, we set up a little pen for her inside the studio, and the children raised “Poppy.” Most days, this meant a good part of Poppy’s time was spent hanging out the studio, perching on a shoulder during prayers in the morning, and clucking to herself as she explored around the studio.
Another unique feature of this icon was that the patron had requested the use of the unique palette I had begun to develop in an art show in Halifax from Londonderry, Nova Scotia. Because he and his family live in that province, the connection between the colour and where they live was something I was happy to provide. But, working with a different set of earth colours also created a challenge. One of the things I love about using pigments made from raw local dirt and rocks is the big personalities such colour brings to the work. While modern pigments are created to be uniform and compatible so the artist can control them, raw pigments push-back in unexpected ways forcing a conversation between the artist and his materials. To this day, Londonderry remains one of my favourite places to create colour in Canada, so while it took some extra effort to learn to work with this palette, it was a joy to do so.
It was while I was conversing with this new Londonderry palette, we found a litter of four-week-old kittens in the barn’s old, field-stone basement. There were five little kittens in total, and they were so tiny that we needed to bottle feed them. We were lucky that one of our neighbours, Chris, is a vet, and he kindly taught us what we needed to do. He also put us in touch with an amazing woman, Cheryl, who was a great help in raising the kittens and provided us with formula, litter, and food. At first, these little creatures remained contained in their basket, often sleeping in a big pile of cuteness and occasionally mewing in a howling chorus when they wanted attention or milk. But, it didn’t take long before they were energetically exploring and playing around the whole studio and mimicking the ferocious attacks of big jungle cats in miniature.
Amid this mewing, climbing, clucking, pouncing, and flapping, the icon of Noah was painted. Each little animal growing after the beautiful way in which God created it. It was lively, but not distracting, and the icon work went well. But it wasn’t until I was speaking with the patron that the situation became clear to me. After talking about the situation, he laughed and said, “So you’re painting Noah in your very own little ark?” And it was true. While working on Noah’s icon, the studio itself had taken on the sounds and smells (and even a little of the chaos) that his ark must have embodied. As the kittens discovered the joy of attacking my shoelaces the next day, I laughed at the situation myself.
Painting and praying in such a lively space was beautiful for a time. But, with the summer is over, things are returning to the studio space’s usual quiet. Now that she’s a little older, Poppy has integrated well into the flock and seems to be forming a social group of her own. Four of the five kittens have been adopted to good homes. But, the fifth, the runt of the litter dubbed “Tiger” because of his stripes and energetic pouncing, we’ve kept as a member of our family. He remains a reminder of the lively summer we’ve enjoyed in the studio in his rambunctious play, as is Noah’s icon, which now hangs in the studio’s little chapel waiting to be shipped to Nova Scotia.