by Gordon Nary
Gordon: It is unusual that both you and your husband, Valentin Gomez, are both iconographers and may work on the same piece to bring it to life. How and when did you meet? When did you join St Paul's Church San Miguel Allende, Mexico and how has the parish contributed to your spirituality?
Mary Jane: My husband I met in Mexico while studying art, he is Mexican and we have celebrated a wonderful marriage for 43 years, worshiping together in both countries, the US and Mexico. We are what they commonly call soul mates on several levels and absolutely attracted to the country of Greece. I have been a resident and participant in many churches as a Christian all my life. I would say I am particularly devoted to participating in the Eucharist and find the liturgy to be constantly expansive, mysteriously mystical and filled with some of the best words I can hear on any given day.
Gordon: You have an extraordinary website. What interested you in becoming an artist?
Mary Jane: I grew up with art and went to the Boston Museum School and later studies pre Colombian art in San Miguel Allende, where I met my spouse in 1976. Twenty-five years ago I painted my first Byzantine style icon in a workshop in the basement St Mary's Catholic Church, Tennessee, with acrylic paints. I was changed, then and there. I had found a prayer form and artistic expression all in one, based on a deep and clear tradition of more than 1,500 years. Iconography is a language of image and it spoke to me.
Gordon: What interested you in Byzantine art?
Mary Jane: Their Beauty. And the Ancient earth pigments icons are painted with.
Gordon: Your work has been commissioned and exhibited in galleries and churches in both the United States and Mexico. It is rare that great artists are self-taught. How did you learn this special form of art?
Mary Jane: Self-taught... The idea is still staggering to me. After one workshop, it was clear to me that time and love would teach me best. One iconographer said, “You can learn anything with the three “P's” Patience, Practice, and Prayer”. And a good deal of the last one, along with a deeply committed focus on God. Not a God of any kind of image but one of friendship and constant companionship. I have always thought I am being watched, for years I believed I would awake one morning and the desire to paint would be gone. Hasn't dried up yet!
It is not a good time in the world for Christians, but nonetheless, it is a noble desire to keep the love of God alive in all we do, say and think. Icon painting is a magnificent tool. The Byzantine church theologians say it is correct to “write” an icon and to be an iconographer we must be taught and given the authority to do this sacred art. Many authorities on Byzantine icons have told me in no uncertain terms, I am not an iconographer. I am too independent, too creative, too expressive, etc. Maybe all this is true, but one thing I know, I love this work and I love God and nothing can keep me from painting, God willing.
Gordon: Please share with our readers the process that you use.
Mary Jane: The iconographer paints with traditional egg tempera which is egg yolk combined with a fine ground stone called earth pigments. The individual colors of the earth pigments are made up of diverse, finely-ground, colored stones. Some are lustrous while others are radiantly bright and precious. Some float while others are heavy and granular like sand or smooth like mud. The egg yolk emulsifies each small grain of pigment leaving the colorful surface mildly glossy and each grain saturated with life. The depth of the color is created through the application of many thin layers, each with its own tone and personality.
The egg yolk represents the raw potential for life; it is the substance which gives life to the chicken. The earth pigment represents eternity, reminding us that our earth is a multi-colored, billion-year-old rock hurling through space and time. The Orthodox icon painters teach that these two elements are mixed together to create divine images which speak of spiritual life, making seen the unseen. The ground stone and egg yolk subtly teach the painter how flesh and spirit mysteriously intermingle in everything we experience and in every aspect of living, it becomes the image of Christ with us in icon form.
From my book In Light of Women, “Even if you do not particularly appreciate religious imagery, you cannot deny the fascinating quality of the pigments and their majestic existence. Working with such simple beauty is intriguing as I push around small particles of dirt which dry and form unimaginable patterns. I find myself always looking at sand at the beach, puddles as they dry, or cracked earth in the desert. These patterns repeat themselves on an icon but in minuscule format. When I see a vast landscape with hills and valleys, I think I am walking around on the giant icon God has made.”
Gordon: Who is your favorite Byzantine saint and why?
Mary Jane: John the Baptist of course! He spent his life roaming around in the wilderness. In Israel the desert is so quiet it roars like the voice of God.
Gordon: For our readers who may want to review more of your work, on Amazon or Lulu.com I recommend your books In Light of Women, Icon Painting Technique, and The Mary Collection. I am closing with your video on Iconography.
Mary Jane Thank you Gordon and God bless
Learn About Iconography with Mary Jane Miller