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Catholic Vancouver Dec. 26, 2017

Catholic schoolteacher becomes locally renowned artist

By Agnieszka Ruck

Steve Knight, iconographer and retired schoolteacher, in his home studio in Burnaby. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

This is the third article in a seven-part series on sacred art.

BURNABY—Two giant banners featuring icons of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII were solemnly paraded before massive crowds at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum in 2014.

Those banners drew 9,000 pairs of eyes to images of the newly canonized saints and the handiwork of the iconographer commissioned to write them: Steve Knight.

“It’s a passion. I don’t know if I’m an icon addict or what, but I just really love doing them,” said Knight, who has written more than 80 icons in the last 20 years for churches and private homes in Vancouver and abroad.

Discovering iconography

Knight believes he “drifted” into religious art thanks to divine intervention.

“I think I’ve been targeted by the Holy Spirit,” the artist and teacher told The B.C. Catholic inside his home art studio in Burnaby. He can’t work out any other reason why, 20 years ago, he felt compelled to step into the mystical world of iconography.

Banners featuring icons of Sts. and Popes John Paul II and John XXIII are carried into the Pacific Coliseum in 2014. (BCC file photo)

“My dad never got the chance to go to university because he grew up in the Depression and he had to work, but he bought a lot of art books. One or two of them were of these images of icons,” Knight recalled.

“I really liked them. There was something attractive about them, something was drawing me into them, but I never gave it any other thought.”

In fact, young Knight, who had been painting, drawing, and sculpting as far back as he could remember, found them odd. “They were dark and foreboding. The way faces are in icons, there is no expression. Some of them looked angry. Some of them looked bored. But something was there.”

The artist grew up to become a teacher, teaching Grades 5-7 and art, and spending free time on weekends painting boats and landscapes. Then one day, Father Tim McCarthy, then the pastor of Christ the Redeemer Parish, asked him to paint something for the church.

Father McCarthy wanted a 15-foot by 8-foot piece for the archbishop’s upcoming visit for the feast of Christ the King. With only three weeks’ notice, Knight painted the large work.

After that, he became intrigued with religious art. When a particularly striking image of Our Lady appeared on the front cover of The B.C. Catholic, he felt compelled to paint it. That led to learning about the Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild and attending one of their meetings.

There, Knight met iconographer Frank Turner and found out he taught classes on writing icons. Knight’s old interest in those dark, strange figures resurfaced. “It just took something to get going. Once I got going, it’s all I do!”

Knight puts final touches on a triptych of the Crucifixion for the adoration chapel at Holy Cross Church. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)
Pope John Paul II. (Courtesy Steve Knight)
Pope John XXIII. (Courtesy Steve Knight)

From still life to sacred life

Knight took iconography courses under Turner, followed by workshops at St. Gertrude’s monastery in Idaho and the Iconographic Arts Institute in Mt. Angel, Oregon. He learned how to paint with traditional materials including egg tempura (made of egg yolks).

But back at home, this teacher and artist had stockpiles of acrylic paints. So, in a big departure from other iconographers, Knight chose modern paints. “You have to figure out how to work with it,” said Knight, who spent about a year perfecting the technique. He maintains lay people can't tell the difference.

“The thing with any creative activity, painting or dancing or writing or playing music, you have to put in your time. You have to learn your craft. There’s a saying: ‘You can’t consider yourself a master until you put in 10,000 hours.’ That’s a lot of time! You have to work and work.”

He runs a friendly rivalry with Turner and other iconographers in the guild. “Frank says, ‘Eww, acrylic, ’” Knight laughed. “I say: ‘That’s fine. Cockroaches don’t like acrylic like they like egg tempura.’”

His venture into iconography began about 20 years ago. Now, Knight estimates he’s written over 80 icons. The original icons of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, photographed and enlarged for those banners in 2014, hang in the John Paul II Pastoral Centre.

An icon of St. Stephen in 2015 after it was blessed by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

His other public works include the Divine Mercy at Christ the Redeemer, St. Stephen for the archdiocesan Permanent Diaconate Office, and crucifixes at St. Anthony of Padua.

He has just finished his biggest icon yet: a triptych of the Crucifixion for the adoration chapel at Holy Cross Church in Burnaby. He estimates he spent well over 200 hours on the piece. “Completing one is almost like finishing report cards! Especially this one.”

Worshipping or venerating?

Knight became so steeped in iconography, he has nearly left all other painting efforts behind (though an unfinished work of a boat trip with his wife still tugs at his heart).

After retiring as a schoolteacher five years ago, Knight continues offering iconography classes to children and adults. He also became the Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild’s president.

“A lot of our churches and our parishioners are without visual images that portray the truth of the Gospel and sacred Scripture. Part of our mission is to reeducate them,” said Knight, ever a teacher at heart.

Part of that education is reminding people of the importance of religious imagery in churches.

“I think of it prayerfully and as a painting, but for some people, it really speaks to them. There’s something they see that just takes their breath away and makes their heart race. I’ve even seen people cry over icons.”

Knight also hopes to dispel myths about icons. He said Catholics don’t worship icons any more than Protestants worship Bibles.

“We venerate them. (An icon) is just a picture, but it represents something. It’s just paint and wood, but you’re praying through the image, and the image goes to the prototype. Who is the prototype? Christ.”

The Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild holds monthly meetings, shows and sells art at craft fairs, and welcomes anyone interested in sacred art to join them. “They don’t have to be artists. If you love art and want to hear more about it, come to the meetings!”

Knight works on the Crucifixion triptych for Holy Cross. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)
The completed triptych. (Photo courtesy Steve Knight)

An Iconographer's Prayer:

O Divine Lord of all that exists. You have illuminated the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Your Most Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent the most Holy Mother, the one who held You in her arms and said, “the Grace of Him who has been born of me is spread throughout the world.” Enlighten and direct our souls, our hearts, and our spirits.

Guide the hands of your unworthy servants, so that we may worthily and perfectly portray Your icon, that of Your Holy Mother and of all the saints, for the glory 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.

This we ask through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Apostle Luke, and all the saints, now and ever unto ages of ages.

Amen.