Icon makers continue religious art creation

(WBIR-West Knoxville) It is religious art full of symbolism created to bring people closer to God.

The practice of making icons dates back more than one thousand years and continues today here is Knoxville.

They applying paint to create images but it is not simply painting.

"It's kind of formulamatic. There are certain things you do and don't do," Jim Phillips said.

These members of the East Tennessee Iconographers Guild paint, or write, icons. It's a particular type of religious art. Jim Phillips explained that the process is prayerful and precise.

"I'm not rendering something from my imagination or standing outside and drawing my trees and painting that in. I'm using a picture of an icon that's been around forever," he said.

She hasn't been around forever but Leona Phelps is 100 years old.

"I figure I am the Grandma Moses of icon painting," she said.

She remembers visiting St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"There was background music, chanting, candles," she said. "And all icons. Covered with icons all over. And I recognized Christ, Mary, the angels, John the Baptist. And I thought I've got to learn to do this."

She not only learned to make icons but also to teach others. In fact, when the guild gets together twice a month it's not always clear who is teaching and who it learning.

"We meet together. We learn from each other," she said.

Charles Chandler pointed to a piece he was working on to explain. "This little's icon's got a hole in the gold and so somebody will come to me and say how do you fix that so I'm the fixer upper person."

He is an engineer who appreciates the specific requirements for icon writing and its purpose of pointing people toward heaven.

"There's sacred art. Then there's icons. They're a section of sacred art," he said. "Now some sacred art is prettier than icons but none is more sacred than icons."

Each icon is rich in symbolism and spiritual meaning.

"Writing an icon is kind of like getting into the middle of a prayer," Phillips said.

The guild worked for about three years to create the Stations of the Cross at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in West Knoxville but most of their icons don't end up in churches.

Phillips said, "Sometimes you're doing it for a specific person. There are a few folks here who do commissions."

Leona Phelps said she gives away hers "for birthdays and Christmas and if somebody is sick I'll paint them an icon."

An icon touches the painter and the viewer.

"They're kind of a prayer for both people," Chandler said.

Phelps said, "I see now why people call it windows into heaven."

Anyone can attend their meetings to learn how to make icons. The group meets twice a month at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension on Northshore.

The next meeting is Monday June 9 at 11:00.


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