Archive for School of the Sacred Arts

Windows on Heaven Contemporary Icons Artist Talk

A small excerpt from Sunday’s artist roundtable from the show Windows on Heaven: Contemporary Icons. I speak from 4:43 on how my sculptures relate to Icons and how taking Icon painting classes at the School of the Sacred Arts influences my work. (The sound is a bit off for the first minute or so but it gets better) It was an honor to be included in this show!

Link for email subscribers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=dXF3j-VyVk8

On Icon Writing, Vessels and Sieves

Gabriel Icon, Vladislav Andrejev
Angel Gabriel by Vladislav Andrejev

During my college years, I had the great blessing of being able to study for a time at School of the Sacred Arts (SOSA) in NYC. It was an amazing place which gathered masters from many diverse spiritual traditions, teaching everything from Haiku, Tibetan butter sculpture, manuscript illumination, Russian Icon writing (painting), Tibetan Tonka painting, Indian dance, Chinese calligraphy and on and on. There were also lectures on mysticism and sacred traditions by scholars and spiritual leaders. Everything was geared to help you enter into and experience sacred mystical traditions, ground and guided by true masters. It was an amazing place which sadly closed years ago. It was here that I first met Lex Hixon, Karen Gorst (my co-author on Lapis & Gold) and studied Icon writing with Vladislav Andrejev.

Vladislav is an amazing man who radiates spirituality. I was in school at NYU and had to walk across Washington Square park to my Icon class in the old church that SOSA had taken over. I would often come upon Vladislav sitting on a bench deep in prayer in preparation for his class.

Let me put it kindly, I was not a success at Icon writing. This class was probably my first conscious, overtly spiritual struggle and my first awareness of my ego’s roll in defining my life.

To write an Icon, you have to set aside your ideas and submit to the form, following the master’s instructions entirely. At that time, this was impossible for me. Directions and me didn’t mix. I used to brag that I couldn’t even follow the directions on a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese and it was true. Not because I was unable read the instructions or understand them, but because my need to control was so profound. I couldn’t even follow the simplest instruction from someone, even written on a box, without arguing.

I wanted to write an Icon, but I want to “express myself” more. I was angry at being confined. I worked on an Angel Gabriel Icon and I was incensed that I could not alter the image at all to put my stamp on it. I was angry that I couldn’t choose my own colors for the many layers that built Gabriel’s face and clothing. It was absurd. I had big plans, but my plans interfered with my ability to write an Icon and striped me of the intimate knowledge and spiritual truths contained in that process.

In Icon writing everything has form, order and meaning. Order and form are strictly prescribed. You must travel their path to get to meaning. You can intellectually understand the meaning, but it will have no impact on your spirit without surrendering completely into the process. Only in this way will mind and spirit become one in knowledge and can you grow spiritually.

Vladislav’s class made it very clear to me that I had a problem. Through him, for the first time, I began to be aware of how ego was dominating my life. Of course, nothing shifted then. It took me twenty years and 10 days in the cardiac ICU to learn to surrender. But the awareness first came from him, through the process of Icon writing. It is an art, like manuscript illumination, which has deep spiritual effects on the artist. It demands the artist be healed through its process because it’s goals are so profound.

Icons are meant to be windows to God. They seek to remove the veils between the Divine and humanity. They are filters that allow a more pure resonance of God’s light to pour into the world. Theodore Roethke said:

Form is not regarded as a neat mould to be filled, but rather as a sieve to catch certain kinds of material.

This is a profound statement. We are not simply empty vessels to be filled with anything that comes along. We have a choice to filter and hold what is dear to us. Although we are vessels, we are active participants too.

What I didn’t understand yet in Vladislav’s class is that our only work here is opening the door for Divine Light, that some more true expression of the Self can emerge from surrendering the self, and that we are filters and windows too, walking Icons. While written Icons capture a timeless moment of peace and surrender harnessed by the spiritual surrender of the artist, we move through time. Each moment becomes a choice- what will we filter, what will we surrender? What kind of window will we build, one filled with an an opaque and dirty glass or one luminous, bridging two worlds?

Vladislav now teaches at Prosopon School of Iconology and has just released a set of instructional DVDs. Here is a short excerpt:

To see more excerpts or order the DVD go to the Prosopon School of Iconology website and click “Process” on the left sidebar. I believe after 20 years of work I may finally be ready to be a beginning Icon writer. I am ordering this video.

Lapis & Gold

Lapis & Gold: Mulling Dragon's Blood Resin

I just updated the website for my book Lapis & Gold: Unlocking the Secrets of Medieval Painters and Illuminators. It’s an in depth look into medieval art technique and sacred and spiritual art practices. I hope it will help contemporary artists reclaim the power we’ve lost by relying on industrialized art supplies that pollute our environment and lack longevity. I also hope it will add to the dialogue about art as a spiritual practice. My writing partner, Karen Gorst, is a technical genius. There is so much in this book that has never been put to paper before. I’m really excited about it.

I first became interested in illumination during college when I studied at the School of the Sacred Arts at the same time as I was immersed in studying medieval mystics at NYU. It seemed like the perfect art form to me, a marriage of the mystical and material. It is through illumination that I first began to understand the sacred and healing nature of making art. For many years, I strictly adhered to illumination technique:

(c) Sybil Archibald The Binding of Isaac
The Binding of Isaac (Click image for larger view)

Now I just incorporate the techniques. I still make my own art supplies where I can but not always and I often work on paper instead of parchment. My work, however, is still true to the core values of the illumination technique: trust in process, trust in materials, and connection to the Divine. As Above, so below; the artist imitates the Divine Artist.

I haven’t written much about my book here because I’ve been on an unplanned, life-enforced break. It had to be set it aside to help my husband close down his business in 2006 and then I had my heart episode/awakening and then our big move which caused my life to unravel into the chaos from which new things are built. I have, however, talked about many of the same themes of spirituality and have touched on technique in a few posts (see Finding the Sacred in Contemporary Art).

I hope Lapis & Gold will appeal to a wide range of people. It has information for artists, art historians, spiritual seekers, conservators, medievalists and students of religion. Each chapter has technical information, ancient recipes tested and refined for contemporary use, history, and spirituality. (Click the links for chapter table of contents).

Supports: Paper and Parchment
Ink
Calligraphy
Gilding
Pigments and Pigment Making
The Pigment Almanac (A reference guide to pigments)
Paintmaking
Projects
A list of appendices

Here a sample of the types of information you will find in different chapters: the pigment chapter has detailed recipes, lightfastness & pigment interaction testing, and an in depth look at the alchemists who developed these recipes, their spiritual belief systems and how those believes manifest as you actually make each recipe; the calligraphy chapter has, among other things, directions for 3 writing styles, calligraphy as meditation, letter mysticism is the Christian, Judaic & Islamic traditions and the analysis of a medieval page to understand layout.

So now finally the time is right to begin again on the journey that is my book. The writing in finished. Lapis & Gold has ripened* on the vine & is waiting for a hungry publisher to come and pluck it. Any advice, contacts, or help you could offer would be greatly appreciated!

Thank you and bless you! Sybil

* Upon rereading this, I was amused to find that I had unconsciously used the same metaphor as medieval alchemists who sometimes referred to the metals in their chemical reactions as ripening.

Icon Writing & Contemporary Artists

Iconographers say that icons are written, not painted. They are believed to embody the Word, God, in physical form. Icons act as physical windows into Heaven and icon writing is a direct experience of the Divine.

Gabriel IconIn life, we have the illusion that we are in control, that we pick our jobs, our mates, etc. It’s not true, but it feels that way (See Gartenfische for more on this). In the process of icon writing, that illusion is stripped away. Every form, every color, every technique is strictly prescribed. This is very hard on the ego believe me! See my attempt at an icon above. I studied under Vladislav Vladislav Andrejev at the School of the Sacred Art, but my ego was too strong at that time to enter fully into the process. In forcing the ego to submit, the artist is healed and brought closer to God. It is this healing moment which is captured in the icon. This moment resonates purely with Source and transforms a block of wood, egg yolk and pigment into a doorway to the Divine.

Before writing an icon, it is customary to pray. Here are some excerpts from a traditional prayer. It is extremely interesting how much of this prayer has to do with healing and cleansing the artist.

Glory to Thee O God, Glory to Thee.
O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One. …
Master, pardon our iniquities.
Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities, for Thy Name’s sake.
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

Enlighten and direct our souls, our hearts, and our spirits. Guide the hands of your unworthy servant so that we may worthily and perfectly portray Your Icon, that of Your Holy Mother, and of all the saints, for the glory, joy, and adornment of Your Holy Church.
Forgive our sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons, and who, standing devoutly before them, give homage to those they represent. Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel.
….Amen

For the whole prayer click here. This is very traditional religious language, but we can look deeply and see a universal message.

Let’s go back to intention. The icon writer intends to meet God. Such a lofty goal necessitates transformation. If, as in much contemporary art, the artist’s goal is to shock, or argue a point, self-aggrandize, then really why bother. We all get that every second of everyday anyway!

Each of us has this one life, this one moment to shine and add luminosity to the world. Why would we choose anything other than fearless, unrelenting opening to God?
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I have chosen different spiritual path from icon writing in my art. Icon writing requires the will to will God’s will. This a beautiful and rich spiritual path, amazing. But my aim is different. I seek to tread what is called the via negativa. I wish to release my will completely, not even to will God’s will. I wish to be an empty vessel, a womb, open to be filled by the Divine. Every thing, thought, and idea I can release makes more space for the Divine creative flow to fill and perhaps birth forth as something completely new.

Emanation & Return: Remembering Lex Hixon

When I was studying at the School of Sacred Arts in the early 1990s, I had the great fortune to meet Lex Hixon. He was an amazing man and my first real encounter with a true living mystic. Although he was deeply connected to many spiritual traditions, I met him in his capacity as sufi Sheikh Nur al Jerrahi. I will never forget our first meeting. The School of Sacred Arts was in the basement of a church off of Washington Square Park. We used the chapel itself for large lectures. I was sitting reading my Bonaventura (The Soul’s Journey Into God) and all of a sudden I felt a wave of love rush over me, into me. It was like someone woke me up, only I hadn’t been sleeping. I turned around and there he was. There was something shiny about him- clean & new but not in a Windex sort of way. I can’t explain it really.

Later, he took me deeply into the Heart. I prayed with him many times, and each time was like a jewel, a dive deep into the pool of ecstatic love. Great mystics often have the power to take others with them on their journeys. My connection to him was brief in time, but effects me still. When I heard he had died, I was so sad. I said a prayer for him. Immediately I heard him laughing, such a joyous resonant laugh I knew he was deep in that Divine pool, just as he had been in life. That moment has erased any fear I had of death.

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From time to time I return to his writings. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Divine creation and its relationship to the artist. I’ve forgotten one of the key components of this in my recent posts. This is a cycle of going and return, being fed and feeding. In his book Atom from the Sun of all Knowledge, the loving spirit of Lex Hixon, writes:

O Divine Beauty, nothing other than You manifests within or beyond creation. Divine Creativity is the One returning to itself. This is the Neoplatonic circle of emanation and elevation. This return is not a regression to the original Unity but an advance to perfect humanity…(pg.373)

Now that I think of it, the dream I posted earlier this week was telling me just this. Could it be any clearer how important the work of artists is on this earth?