An Ancient Calm
|by Kim Epp Frenette, December 2012|
Many artists get into a right-brain induced peace while practicing their craft. Diane Landis Hoenig of Upper St Clair takes it to a whole new level.
Diane “writes” – not paints, because an icon tells a story in color – Greek Orthodox icons using ancient traditional methods. Everything she places, everything she does, and how she does it, has special meaning. “It is not about you being creative,” explains Diane. “It is about you offering yourself as a vehicle to honor God.” As such, says Hoenig, a true icon is never signed.
Each icon made by Diane is the result of incredible attention to detail and can take three months or longer to produce. Materials used are natural, as gifts from God. The base is wood (representing the Cross), covered with linen (Christ’s swaddling and burial clothes), and is primed with a biblical number of layers (example, 12) of gesso made from rabbit skin glue, honey, and marble dust, that Hoenig prepares herself.
Before beginning an icon, Hoenig does extensive research on the Saint and scene that she is replicating. Often she uses historical icons as guides. She uses historically accurate earth pigments such as cinnabar for red (at a cost of $100+ per oz.!) and ground lapis lazuli for blue, and the egg tempera method for mixing her paints using egg yolk, water and vinegar. The resulting colors can take up to 6 months to cure, but are very permanent.
Details in the work itself all have meaning. Green is humble, red is martyrdom; the line around the icon represents the border between the physical and spiritual worlds. Even the lack of perspective in Byzantine icons is intentional. “The objective is flat because there are no finite points in heaven – it is infinite,” explains Diane. “Instead you are the point; it brings the image closer to you and engages with you.”
Diane has a degree in fine arts, but like many women got caught up in mothering and care giving. Ten years ago she felt compelled to return to her artistic interests and started studying with iconography masters including a Russian émigré who had risked her life painting icons behind the Iron Curtain.
Hoenig often writes icons as cherished gifts for family, or commissioned for “cost plus donation” which goes to charity. When working on an icon she trys to fast, attend liturgy regularly, and listen to sacred music. “It is not inspired by your own thoughts but by prayer and reading,” says Diane. “But some of you does come through, and obviously the art background helps!”
For Diane, icons represent “the peacefulness of the triumph of the next world, not the suffering of this one.” For her, writing them is “a vehicle of hope and prayer, so you can know more about yourself and what you want to become.”