By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
Despite the more casual, contemporary use of the word “icon,” icons are actually part of an ancient tradition of Christian art, inspirational paintings of sacred subjects that may date back to the time of the apostles, when St. Luke was said to have painted images of the Virgin Mary. Icons were particularly popular during the Byzantine Empire, when frescoes flourished, and the art of iconography spread across Europe to Russia.
These days, icons are being painted locally by the Rev. Paige Blair, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Del Mar. Her works recently gained wider attention when several were chosen as cover art for “Forward Day by Day,” a national quarterly published by the Episcopal Church.
How did Blair, who was born on March Air Force Base in Riverside and dreamed of being the country’s first woman fighter pilot, become “Mother Paige,” a parish priest with a talent for iconography?
“I was 20 years old, studying Japanese and preparing for a career in the foreign service, when God got my attention,” she said. “I was ordained a deacon in 1996 and became a priest the next year. In my church in Massachusetts, I had a parishioner who was studying iconography with a wonderful teacher, Rebecca Taylor. In 1999, I took a workshop with her and got hooked.”
Blair continued taking workshops, adding beading to some of the pieces she created. In 2002, Taylor invited her to co-teach a workshop in icon writing.
“ ‘Writing an icon’ is the traditional language used to describe the creation of an icon, which is, essentially, symbolic of the Word of God,” Blair explained.
It’s a devotional act, a meditation; she has written two pamphlets about the spiritual practice of writing icons, which “Forward Day by Day” will publish, as companions to her cover pieces.
Blair said that the process, which every iconographer has followed since St. Luke, consists of tracing an existing painting onto a smooth, white, gesso board. “The darkest colors get painted first, then you put down the lighter colors, to add depth, movement, and light,” she said. “It’s very symbolic — the move from darkness into light.”
The paint is applied, carefully, layer by layer. “The first color is a kind of green, muddy, earthy color, and you have to trust that the icon will emerge,” Blair said. “Then, suddenly, there’s a face staring back at you.”
The last steps are gold-leaf gilding, and a slim-line halo, painstakingly drawn in the traditional Halo Red, “mixed to a maple syrup consistency.”
Blair said writing icons is not quite as difficult as it sounds. “It’s a very forgiving process, in all ways,” she said, with a smile. “You can basically fix all errors — patch the gold, cover up paint that goes awry. There are ways to heal any boo-boo that affects the icon, or the iconographer. I’ve made about every mistake that can be made, so I’ve learned how to correct them.”
Every August, at St. Peter’s, she teaches a five-day icon-writing workshop. Enrollment is open to all, but limited to 10. Year-round, despite the demands of her day job as priest of a parish with close to 1,000 members (and activities such as yoga, running, surfing, and walking her two dogs), Mother Paige still finds time for her icons.
“Sometimes an icon just calls to me, and I have to make time for it,” she said.
The walls of her welcoming office are covered with icons, which visitors, not surprisingly, seem to enjoy.
To learn more about Blair, see her blog
, or contact her at email@example.com.