The Artist Next Door: Layers of Devotion
in Orthodox Liturgical Icons
by Gina Fox
A modest home in a western Oregon town serves as the immersive studio of an accomplished iconographer. Magdalene Grace Deane steeps tea in the kitchen of her studio home on a Fall afternoon. The stainless steel island is set with little red napkins and cups and saucers of rose and white. Two small pots—one white and one black—emit wisps of steam from tea flavored of dark chocolate cake, cream, and cherries. The pots’ lids have been swapped, maybe for whimsy, or maybe to create a unifying connection. As long as they’re each capped with the other’s color, they cannot be separated in any practical way—mutual assured usefulness, by design. Indeed many of the kitchen’s appointments are either black or white, with kisses of red and rose throughout, and the tea set obliges. The kitchen is also a sort of gallery featuring three striking oil portraits, including one of a gentleman in a lovingly detailed tartan. Deane draws on broad experiences in portraiture as well as restoration, art therapy, and fashion design to guide and support her iconography.
The home’s living and dining spaces are furnished with easels, stools, carts and cases—utilitarian appointments particular to a work space that occasionally serves as a classroom. Icons in progress sit perched, as she waits on the best possible conditions to resume work. Even the unfinished faces command attention, and not just from persons of faith. Deane says she once asked a patron why he had bought one of her pieces, and he said that as he stood before it, “It’s so beautiful, and I instantly feel calm.” A perfectly good reason to invest in art that pleases, both visually and emotionally. The saints and kings wait to be completed at their different stages in the devotional process—a process that is complex and meditative, according to Deane.
The historical canon and guidelines for this art form date back over two thousand years, earlier than that if you count the ancient Egyptians’ treatments of their sarcophagi. Each portrait’s icon tells a story, and while the imagery is sometimes naïve, even cartoonish at first blush, the process ensures the finished piece will possess a radiance that outshines the two-dimensionality of the style. Deane can chat for a good ten minutes about the chemistry of the humble little chicken egg, the very illuminated heart and soul of these images. Egg yolks are the vehicle for the pigments, and give the images their glow. Egg tempera dries translucent and the paint is painstakingly layered atop marble-finished gessoed board imported from northern Italy, near Venice.
The pigments come from things like ground gemstones and shells, ores and vegetation, and, of course, precious metals. The gilding process adds another dimension to the majesty of these works, and also requires ideal working conditions—no breezes from the windows nor gusts from the vents—lest the studio become a glittering scene from a fairy tale of magical realism.
Whether you’re looking for a piece of Western art history in the form of a pretty picture, a little “bling for your walls,” or some spiritual serenity, the reality is that, “An icon,” Deane promises “will meet you halfway, whether or not you have any religious experience.” The Marilyn Affolter Fine Art Studio & Gallery at 325 NE Evans Street in McMinnville has a collection of Deane’s icons on display and for sale. Check gallery hours at marilynaffolter.com.
Deane offers classes at her studio in Newberg: orthodoxnorthwest.wordpress.com/tag/magdalene-grace-deane-iconographe/