Fr. Jon Buffington, a Chaldean Catholic priest and master iconographer, teaches a student at the Trinity Iconography Institute’s summer intensive class. The priest provides students not only with practical skills needed to write icons but also the theology behind it. “You’re not just doing a painting that is going to hang on somebody’s wall. You’re creating something that is an invitation to prayer and an invitation to conversation,” said the priest. (Courtesy Trinity Iconography Institute)
Fr. Jon Buffington, a Chaldean Catholic priest and master iconographer, teaches a student at the Trinity Iconography Institute’s summer intensive class. The priest provides students not only with practical skills needed to write icons but also the theology behind it. “You’re not just doing a painting that is going to hang on somebody’s wall. You’re creating something that is an invitation to prayer and an invitation to conversation,” said the priest. (Courtesy Trinity Iconography Institute)

Every summer, Father Jon Buffington, a priest in the Chaldean Catholic rite, boards an airplane to take him from Portland to Florence, Italy. His destination: Zecchi’s. Zecchi’s is a shop that has been providing painters with natural stone and mineral pigments since the Renaissance. Father Buffington purchases the pigments for the egg tempera used at the Trinity Iconography Institute where he serves as instructor.

The institute, based at the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Northwest Portland, strives to make its iconography method as close to the original method as possible. The icons are written on wood panels that have been prepared by the students of the institute. They make the white gesso paint base out of rabbit hide glue and marble dust. The images often include gold leaf. In his own work, Father Buffington embeds gems.

Icons are written, not painted. This is because the word of God is written, said Christine Thum Schlesser, executive director of Trinity Iconography Institute and a member of St. Patrick Parish in Northwest Portland.

Painting in tempera is not like painting with acrylics. In acrylics, the light colors are laid down first and the darker colors laid on top. Tempera is the opposite.

“Just as you would theologically, you go from darkness to light,” said Schlesser.

It’s not only the paints that are symbolic, but the geometry as well. Everything is mathematically arranged, said Schlesser. And unlike in Western art that uses a vanishing point to draw the viewer into the painting, icons have no such point. They have a reverse perspective, with the subject of the image reaching out to the viewer.

The subject is “telling you that they’re always here. They’re here with you. You are part of the story,” said Schlesser.

“There’s nothing that’s a coincidence or an afterthought in an icon,” she added.

Iconography is not considered an artform.

“It’s primarily a form of prayer,” said Schlesser. “The art is secondary.”

When writing an icon, the writer seeks guidance from the subject. So, when writing Mary, the Mother of God, the writer enters into a conversation with Mary. The conversation directs the work.

An icon is a relationship, said Father Buffington.

“You’re not just doing a painting that is going to hang on somebody’s wall. You’re creating something that is an invitation to prayer and an invitation to conversation,” he said. “So while you’re working on the icon, what you’re doing is trying to understand who the saint or the mystery is that you’re portraying.”

The priest recalled one of his early icons portraying Blessed Émilie Gamelin, founder of the Sisters of Providence.

“She hates halos, at least in my experience,” said Father Buffington. “Every time I put a halo on her icon, it’d fall off or something else terrible would happen.”

He sat down and had a conversation with Blessed Gamelin. Father Buffington said he loves using gold over and over again. But upon founding the Sisters of Providence, Mother Gamelin’s bishop told her to give away her wedding ring because it represented her past.

“She finally let me have a simple halo. Other than that, forget it,” recalled Father Buffington.

There are certain things the saints tell you to do or not to do as you look into their eyes, the priest explained.

“Someday you turn a corner and the image starts to become alive and then your conversations really start getting deeper and deeper,” he said.

Father Buffington moved to Portland in 1990 to work as a chaplain at Providence Portland Medical Center. Before becoming a priest, he was an actor in San Francisco and then earned a master’s in patristics and early church history from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, California. The priest had an interest in icons and began to teach himself the practice before beginning official studies in Mount Angel. He has since studied with master iconographers in Italy and France. He also studied the development of icons in Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. Father Buffington joined the Trinity Iconography Institute as an instructor in 2012. It was Father Buffington who took the institute from one that paints using an acrylics method to one that paints using a traditional egg tempera method.

Historically, around a half dozen students have been in each class. Some participate in the summer intensive classes and some participate in the longer programs that are held weekly over several months. The institute’s upcoming fall beginner class is expected to be more than double the usual size. Father Buffington teaches the theology behind the icons being written, along with the art skills.

Writing icons offers a practice not only in prayer but in patience. Schlesser remembers her first class. She had wanted to learn iconography for years.

“After a couple of months, I thought, ‘I’m so disappointed. I’ve wanted to do this for so long and this is not for me.’ I really thought that I would never do it again,” she said.

So Schlesser went home and had a conversation with Mary, the subject of her icon. When she woke up the next morning, Schlesser had a whole new idea of how Mary should look.

“I didn’t do any of my work that day for my job,” she remembered. “I spent the day at home, wiped off her face and did the whole thing again.”

Schlesser remembers that moment as a turning point.

“It just so happened that I was struggling with something else at the time and that resolved,” she said. “They were kind of connected.”

Writing icons can seem intimidating to people who’ve never trained in it. Still, Schlesser says it can be learned.

Mayra Clark is a member of Grace Memorial Church in Vancouver. She was a student at the institute’s summer intensive advanced class. She first became interested in icons around age 11. She collected books on making icons and then gave them away. Then she started embroidering an icon as part of a group at her church.

“Then it was all over,” said Clark.

“It’s really a prayerful and meditative process,” said Clark, adding that she likes to be working on an icon all the time. “It keeps me in the moment.”

In a recent class, Schlesser said none of the students actually believed they could write an icon. The works are intimidating because the artists are using such precious materials, she said.

“But if you’re shown how to do it properly, with some guidance, you can easily do it,” said Schlesser.

A rule stressed at the Trinity Iconography Institute is to always reach out to the saint or image you’re painting.

“You have a conversation with the saint and you get guidance from that,” said Schlesser.

“It might sound like this isn’t possible but it truly is and when you can see four people who’ve never had any experience walk away with something that looks like it could hang in a church, it’s really remarkable.

“This would be a really important pursuit for young people who are so stressed in today’s society. We live in really turbulent times, and the icon offers harmony, balance and peace that I think comes from not only writing it but praying with it.”

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org