Art, Icons, and Ant Ovaries

orthodox-icon-of-st-stephen-the-archdeacon-375x544“A world created out of silence gives itself over to prayer.” I’m listening to local painter Debra Korluka discuss her work: the icons she’s painted since she was a child studying in the Ukrainian Orthodox church. I’m interested in the symbolism of an icon’s composition and in the paints—their colors, chemistry, poisons, and history. All the hidden things that, like the completed icon, promise travel from invisibility to visibility; what is seen depends on where the journeying paths of the viewer and the art meet.

What I’m drawn to most is Korluka’s devotion, her belief not only that she’s found meaningful work, but that she’s decided to give herself to it completely. She doesn’t say this, but it comes through entirely. I’m entranced by this way of finding vocation, of not considering too deeply what makes one happy or fulfilled, but building meaning and purpose through devotion. [Read more…]

Fiat Lux: Cathedral of the Pines

france paris sainte chapelle-LThis summer in Paris, on the morning before we flew home, I took my husband to Sainte-Chapelle, the medieval Gothic chapel on the Île de la Cité, right in the heart of Paris, a few streets over from the Notre Dame.

A friend had brought me to Sainte-Chappelle years before. In the few free hours we had following a conference, it was the only thing I saw in the city on that trip. I climbed the stairs from the lower chapel wearily, still jetlagged. But though half the famous windows were covered for construction, the light exploded across my field of vision with a shock I can still feel in my bones when I remember it.

Fifteen stained glass windows from the thirteenth century ring the room, stretching almost from floor to ceiling—not set into the walls so much as forming them. You can taste the rose light, feel it press your skin. It is glossy, thick with history and memory and the breath of millions of visitors.

With my husband in tow on the last day of our trip, I padded up those stairs again, this time wide awake and ready for the light. In the years since I’d been there, the covered half of the room had been restored and the scaffolding removed, revealing the other half. Now I could see all fifteen windows, and I stood in the middle of the room, transfixed. [Read more…]

Writing My Mother’s Icon

Blessed Santa Barbara, / Your story is written in the sky, / With paper and holy water.

December 4 marked the feast day of St. Barbara. An early martyr, St. Barbara announced her faith to her pagan father by having three windows—a sign of the Trinity—cut into a wall of her private bath. It is said that the torches St. Barbara’s father used to torture her would extinguish themselves before they could be pressed against her skin.

My mother, also named Barbara, spent her summers cleaning the rooms of my grandfather’s motel; memories of the task still make her shudder. My grandfather refused to wash sheets or towels, and was either too drunk or angry for my mother to ask for a clean washrag.

“I cannot stand dirt,” she says, filling her sink with soapy water, reaching for the spoon I used to spoon sugar into her coffee. Her cigarette rests on the sink’s aluminum edge, its ash hovering over the sudsy water, which she will use to wash the spoon and the rest of the day’s dishes. It is a better spot for the cigarette than the counter by the stove, which, she has mentioned, is now miraculously free of grease stains.

“Baby oil! A little bit just rubs the grease away,” she exclaims, somehow forgetting how flammable baby oil is, how easily it could set her small kitchen ablaze, the file cabinet holding her life’s paperwork sidled next to the stove, the first thing to go should the oil spark.

[Read more…]