Judy Symalla, founder and coordinator of the St. Croix Catholic Iconographers Guild, stands next to Ilze Strobela, who works on the guild’s joint project of creating an icon of Our Lady of Champion to be presented to the National Shrine in the spring. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

The St. Croix Catholic Iconographers Guild – formed in 2014 – meets monthly at the home of the arts organization ArtReach in Stillwater, Minnesota. How and when they first encountered iconography varies among members, but the common thread is a local iconographer, stained glass maker, graphic artist and ecclesial design consultant, Nicholas Markell.

Markell’s desire is to revive iconic images in their purpose of renewing hearts, minds and lives. The foundation for this is his belief that liturgy and worship are some of the church’s most important work.

One of the ways Markell accomplishes this is through iconography workshops. A lifelong artist, Markell’s graduate studies in theology and time spent discerning a religious vocation inform his approach to teaching. He seeks to explore art’s fuller spiritual potential, focusing on its expressions of beauty, mystery and meaning.

It was after one of these workshops that the St. Croix Catholic Iconographers Guild was formed. In September 2014, a group of participants, led by the guild’s coordinator Judy Symalla, wanted to continue their education by learning the techniques of iconography as well as the symbolism and theology behind it.

Beginning the guild wasn’t something Symalla aspired to, but after a short time she felt called to do so, and she has been dedicated to the organization’s work and mission.

Their mission statement is “Glorifying the triune God, bringing beauty to the church, and joyfully serving our neighbor through our devotion to sacred iconography.” They fulfill it through offering workshops and educational talks to groups, including youth groups, and mission work.

At the guild’s December monthly meeting, Ruth Laursen from All Saints Parish in Lakeville shared that her involvement with iconography began when her husband’s Knights of Columbus Council wanted to have an icon of St. Joseph dedicated to him. The Laursens connected with Fr. Jim Perkl, pastor at Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville, who had created some. During the process, Lauren’s desire to learn more was piqued and she signed up for a workshop with Nicholas Markell.

“It was quite an experience. Just exhausting!” she exclaimed, “like running a marathon.”

Laursen said it was much more than an art class, a genuine “spiritual journey, learning the layers and depth” of icons. Since then, she has written three icons and is now helping Fr. Perkl to reproduce his to be sent to missions.

When the group was asked about why the term “writing” an icon is used rather than painting one, another member, Deborah Tyryfter, shared, “You’re so connected with the Holy Spirit, that each of us could write the exact same icon and it will never be the same.

“It (the icon) will always have you imprinted in it because you are developing yourself as the icon develops you,” she added. Tyryfter – who travels every month from Chicago to participate – called it a two-way experience, one hard to put into words, but “definitely a form of meditation.”

Cheryl Kane said “writing” the icon is like the act of “a scribe replicating an image from the church.”

She added that every image used in iconography comes from the church and looks to the church for truth, beauty and goodness in harmony with her teachings. She said the artist usually doesn’t even sign their name to icon, or only a “by the hand of” attribution on the back because the purpose isn’t for the artist, but to draw people closer to Christ.

“We are working with the Holy Spirit for inspiration and your own hand comes through… It is a prayer, like writing a prayer.” Kane then shared an utterance she prays during the process: “Guide the hand of your unworthy servant.”

“Christ is the Word, the Logos, in whose image we have been created and which is augmented in the sacraments,” she continued. “That Word comes out in everything we do. The meaning is him – whether it’s verbal or visual – and we don’t work alone.”

Symalla clarified that using the term “writing” an icon isn’t required or necessary. It can be considered painting, but what she likes about saying an icon is written is that “it makes you think. It makes you wonder if there’s something different going on, more than in an artistic painting.”

Personally, she uses the term “creating” an icon, adding that it is definitely “a craft, working within a certain framework” of steps, processes and rules.

The entire group answered, almost in unison, when asked who started iconography, “St. Luke.”

Many websites confirm there is no hard evidence for that, but while it is a traditionally held belief especially in the Eastern rites, it is very believable given the variety of talents the evangelist had and his Gospel’s heavy use of Jesus’ metaphors and parables.

Some guild members explained steps followed and methods used; the four layers of “lights” used that give the luminous look to the icon and when the gold karat is added. Some icons are written in acrylic paint, but the most traditional way uses egg tempura mixed with dried pigments.

One unique element of the SCCIG is members work in community. Since every image used comes from the church, they are never working alone, even when they continue the creations at home.

Symalla added that only a few such guilds exist around the country. As a guild, they travelled to Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to paint decorative murals in their newly renovated church. They have also created icons for the chapel of the Missionaries of Charity in Minneapolis, a village in Tanzania and the Stillwater State Prison chapel.

During the December gathering, a handful of members took turns working on their latest project, an icon of Our Lady of Champion which will be presented to the National Shrine next spring. Markell suggested the project for the group and drew the sketch, and with various members having visited Champion, there is a particular excitement working on this icon.

The group is trying to raise $1 million to start an iconography center where people could come from all over. It would house a gallery and guest rooms for workshops and retreats. Symalla said they have outgrown their space at ArtReach and want to continue growing with the increased interest the guild has garnered.

A math major in college, Symalla has always enjoyed working creatively with her hands. It was her husband who encouraged her to add painting to her repertoire of skills and signed up for her first iconography workshop.

“What I took more from the workshop,” she said, “was having learned to pray. After praying with icons, I realized it had to be a part of my life,” she emphasized. “It took me to a whole new level of prayer. I prayed a lot for talent then to be able to see beauty when I painted.

“God has been very good to me,” Symalla acknowledged and offered her gratitude for the new people joining in recent years and the new opportunities presented to the guild.

Of the 15 members present, all were Catholic but two: Bruce Stunkard of Hudson and Ilze Strobela from Amery.

Stunkard, a former United Methodist pastor, is married to a Catholic. He was introduced to the guild through a flyer he saw after participating in a pilgrimage in honor of Bl. Solanus Casey that ended at St. Michael’s Church in Stillwater.

“That’s when I told my wife, ‘I think I found a home,’” Stunkard said. After all the isolation during the pandemic, coming out “to find a group of people concerned about the beauty of the Gospel” was what drew him in.

Strobela, who was born in Latvia, wanted to say some words from the perspective of being a Protestant and her surprise that, after she came to the United States, she didn’t find anyone who knew what an icon was. “In Latvia, even Protestants know what an icon is… I was shocked that people do not know what is an icon.”

She shared how before she got involved with the guild and found out more about Catholicism, she “sincerely believed that Catholics pray to icons. And that is a misconception!”

“I have for myself found so much treasure in Catholicism, and it has enriched me,” Strobela said before showing the detailed icons she has written of St. George and St. Benedict.

Others shared how much they study the lives of the subjects of their icons.

Kane said, describing the first step of transferring the image, “With that, it forms the image in your heart. You’re going over and over and over it. Again, you’re praying with that saint.”

Symalla complemented, “It’s important that you’re praying through the icon,” explaining how with other art it’s more a stance of observation at surface-level. “We look at art for its beauty… with icons, you’re praying through it, as a window to heaven.”

Kane shared more of her personal experience, “When I first started (working with icons), I felt like I was drinking from a firehose.” She described it like trying to take a sip from that gush of water, and how with the many layers and aspects to learn, she kept coming back for more. When treatment for cancer made her hand shake for a time, she struggled to get the lines of her icon in their right place.

“I had to completely let go and just trust and keep going,” she said. With everything, it took four years to finish that icon of Christ, but she also discovered with her occupational therapist that “iconography was the best for me physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually and spiritually… It was the very best thing for me.

Kane has appreciated how much theology she has learned through Markell’s workshops, and another guild member, Cindy Harrison, commented, “The more I created, the more I realized how much I didn’t know about a lot of things with the faith – like putting your toe in the ocean and thinking it’s a creek,” like any genuine encounter with God.

Stunkard added the perspective of someone trained to study Scriptures academically: “You can spend a lot of time sitting there evaluating the Scriptures rather than allowing the Scripture evaluating you … With an icon, it’s a different dimension of things. You’re spending time with an image – looking at and over time you become more familiar with it. Intimate with it.

“There’s a moment that I’ve had,” he continued, likening it to looking at a “magic eyes” book of optical illusions, when “there’s a shift. You go from seeing the image to seeing it looking at you. You’re no longer evaluating it, or its artistic qualities – but it’s looking at you and asking questions,” prompting real prayer and personal transformation.

More information is available at stcroixiconography.org.