‘PLAYING IN THE DIRT’ : The Inclusive Icons of a Self-Taught Artist

Volume 48, Issue 1 :: by Mary Jane Miller

For two millennia icons have encouraged vibrant soul transformation through image and prayer. The Orthodox Church used this method of image and prayer as a teaching tool for the community while illustrating their doctrine. It is said that the first icon painters, called iconographers, cultivated wisdom while experiencing mystical revelations within the practice.

A portion of the Masters portion of the work ‘The Dialogue,’ which depicts world historical figures; from left to right: Moses; Mother Teresa; Christ; Buddha; Mohammed; Copernicus.

A portion of the Masters portion of the work ‘The Dialogue,’ which depicts world historical figures; from left to right: Moses; Mother Teresa; Christ; Buddha; Mohammed; Copernicus.

Egg, Dirt, and God

The early icon painting technique is called egg tempera: egg yolk and water mixed with million-year-old stone, ground into a fine dust called “earth pigments.” Egg yolk represents the raw potential for life and the earth pigment represents eternity, mixed together to create divine image. The idea of painting with egg and pigment is one thing, but using it to portray divine sacred images is quite another. The process itself begs the question: Where is the divine experienced, through the mind, through the hand, or through the image? In my case, it is through all three and in the divine dirt of the earth itself.

Painting icons can be a refuge, a place to retreat and maybe touch the mysterious force within humanity and the divine. Ancient images from around the globe provoke us to wonder what the artist is trying to say, and what kind of vision do they have. The earth pigments spoke to me about humanity’s desire to document the divine. For me, pushing around small particles of earth to create sacred images continues to be an extraordinary experience. Every brush stroke, every color choice, and every swirl of paint in the dish is mystery.

Painting icons has prompted me to broaden the tradition. I want to explore the edge of traditional iconography in the hope of bringing a few new images to a wider audience. My goal as an artist has been to paint ideas and images for the contemporary Christian in an expanded sense, one that is more inclusive of the world’s religions, and also different ways of expressing one’s belief, such as sign language.  I believe there are still new ways to say the same thing: God’s love is everywhere.

‘Last Supper, India,’ depicts the global nature of a meal shared around the table.

‘Last Supper, India,’ depicts the global nature of a meal shared around the table.

Gathered Around the Table

The “Last Supper” series is an example of how pushing the boundaries within this tradition. My intuition overrides the tradition, telling me (at least with this series) that we must learn to live and eat together as one family. The Last Supper is not only about Christians and Christ. It is our meal of the day filled with crisis, turmoil, contradiction, and decision. We are overwhelmed at the table and need new preparation for what is coming. We must learn to eat again together in spite of our failure and incompleteness, and again experience God’s redeeming love for us.

Another of the ‘Last Supper’ series depicts a shared meal by Turkish figures.

Another of the ‘Last Supper’ series depicts a shared meal by Turkish figures.

Gradually I became increasingly aware that there are commonalities between faiths and practices. We are diverse and wonderful creatures all looking for this God in different ways. I decided to take a sabbatical from painting Jesus, put all the icons away, and simply explore what the dirt was like in another language, another culture, and another belief. I started with the Mayan corn god to honor the Mexican culture where I live, then the Navajo culture, then the Sumerian gods, then onto the Hindu gods. I finished with 17 images of gods and goddesses from around the world. I moved on to paint significant people that had influenced today’s societies around the globe: Moses, Lao Tzu, Copernicus, Confucius, Christ, Mother Teresa, Atisha, Plato. I believe they each made magnificent contributions to human understanding.

Language of Sacred Signs

The foundation of traditional iconography is experiencing resurgence as it grows and expands to include wider visual theological ideas through the efforts of new iconographers like myself. Clearly one reason icons are important to humanity is housed in their ability to strike at the heart and not at the head.

The “Language” series affirms this awareness and new freedom. The series began with one icon about sign language or silent hands in general. Saying we are Christians does not always come off as interestingly as when we might say we are Buddhist. Working on the first icon merged these two spiritual avenues because of the hands and what they represent. The idea that we are held by some invisible embrace, by a sound of vibration greater than ourselves, is obvious to anyone on the spiritual journey. Who is it that holds, speaks a silent language only our soul can understand?

We have a deaf gardener, and one day he tried to teach me a few words in sign language. I found not only his hands to be expressive and graceful, but I saw his were like my own, but more flexible. The idea God was living in this young man’s hands, expressing ideas, inviting understanding yet making no sound, was an epiphany. We are being held, spoken to, and invited constantly.

The entire collection was designed using the square shape to represent the four cardinal points with the face of Christ in the center. Christ is silent sign language, expressed in the hands, what we touch and what touches us.  The image and consciousness of Christ is found in the silent space, the touch of a handwritten word and symbol. I came to realize no matter what the tradition, in the physical realm or the spiritual, the energy of Christ dwells in the center. Through the touch of our hand or written language around the world, there is potential for Christ consciousness.

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Last Thoughts

Twenty years of playing in the dirt and asking God to help me find love and be at peace has enabled me to realize exactly how spirit and image are linked. We are humans trying to identify what it is to be spiritual. Painting with dirt and egg has taught me marvelous things. I know from watching paint dry we are all connected, I know repeating the same images in different ways for two decades with the same dozen pigments is not only a discipline but also freedom. I know that everyday grace fills us and inspires us to do what we do and we are never alone.

Iconography is a tradition without a ceiling.

Mary Jane Miller is an artist who resides in Mexico. More of her work can be seen at: moderncatholiciconography.com.