My friend (and Goddaughter) Sue and I worked together on an art project this week. Sue is an excellent artist, with a degree in fine arts and then ongoing training in the realist school. She does portraits and landscapes in oil. On the other hand, I have no formal art training, but I did study, practice and teach iconography for several years. So when we volunteered to paint the background on icon boards for the new church school curriculum at St. John Orthodox Church, we envisioned a fairly easy project. What we didn’t see coming (or at least I didn’t) was the lessons we would learn as we worked almost non-stop for almost seven hours on Wednesday. And as I continued for another three hours on Thursday. And this was after we had gessoed and sanded the six icon boards before getting together to paint.
Our parish is implementing a new curriculum based on the international Montessori-inspired program, The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. A group of Orthodox women have adapted the program for our church school needs and are beginning to introduce it in numerous parishes, including ours here in Memphis. I didn’t know much about the program when I volunteered to help shop for materials this past summer, and later to help with painting the icon boards. Sue and I were given patterns to use on the boards (which will form two triptychs after someone else puts them together with fasteners) and acrylic paints.
The subject is the icon of the Annunciation—the scene where Archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is going to bear Jesus. Another parishioner is making figurines of Mary, the Mother of God, and the Archangel Gabriel, which the children will use with the backgrounds. (Click here for a description of the scene depicted in the icon.)
So, as we transferred the patterns and began to paint, Sue and I both experienced some frustration. Neither of us have used acrylics extensively—I’ve used mainly egg tempera and watercolor and Sue works primarily with oils. As the project stretched into the afternoon and evening, we both got tired and began to be critical of our own work. We tried to remember that these are not actual icons to be used in a church, but materials to be used by children in a church school program. But we still wanted them to be done well.
What I wish I had read before we began the work was this list of characteristics of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, or “32 Points of Reflection,” many of which address the attitude of the people preparing to teach the classes, and of those who are preparing materials. I was especially struck by Number 18:
The material must be attractive but “sober” and must strictly adhere to the theme being presented. In making the material, the catechist refrains from adding superficial embellishments which would distract the child from the essentials of the theme being presented. In other words, the material must be simple, essential and “poor” in order to allow the richness of the themes content to shine through.
Simple. Essential. And poor. I immediately thought about one of the verses of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” It’s about humility—not only the humility the teachers should have, but also those of us preparing the materials to be used.
I thought about how Sue and I considered adding some highlights to some of the elements of the images we were painting because we thought they looked too “plain.” We didn’t end up embellishing them very much, and now I’m really glad, as I can see how the design was intentional. At one point I was ahead of Sue (we were each painting the same designs) and took a break to cook supper. As I got tired, I began to hurry the process, whereas Sue took her time and was more careful with the work. Later I read the 25th Point of Reflection and realized the value of Sue’s approach:
The reasons why the catechist is requested to make the materials with his/her own hands are:
to absorb the content more deeply;
to combat hurry, consumerism and even excessive “efficiency”;
to pace oneself more to the rhythm of the child and thus also – or so we believe – to the working of the Holy Spirit;
to try to reach the integration of hand, mind and heart.
Again, Sue and I aren’t catechists (teachers) but even our limited participation in the program will be enhanced if we follow these reflections. And what great reminders of how we should approach all of life—combating hurry, consumerism and excessive “efficiency.” I’m not training to be a “catechist” (teacher) in this new program, but I’m excited that it’s being implemented in our parish. I wish it had been around when my children were young. (One of the teachers was a student in the 6th and 7th grade class I taught over fifteen years ago!) I’m also encouraged by the philosophy and approach that reaches beyond the classroom into the lives of others in the parish. Like me. I am changed by my participation in this one simple project, and I hope to have the opportunity to be involved more in the future. Maybe I will at least struggle against my tendency towards “excessive efficiency.”