Catholic Vancouver April 23, 2015

Lebanese Catholics venerate icon by local artist

By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Frank Turner spends four to six hours a day working in his Port Moody studio. He has created more than 75 pieces of sacred art so far. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

PORT MOODY—A unique icon of St. Elias hangs above the tabernacle in a Melkite Catholic church built of cinderblocks in Abra, Lebanon.

It's a reproduction of a miraculous image that was destroyed during the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s. It was recreated by an unlikely source, Port Coquitlam artist Frank Turner.

Lebanese devotion

"This had been a miraculous icon in their community," Turner told The B.C. Catholic.

A Lebanese neighbour told Turner about an icon of St. Elias in Abra that seemed to bleed after a distraught man entered the church and shot it. "This was a devotional thing in the community."

His neighbour "used to put his finger into the depression" on the saint's knee.

The church was destroyed during the civil war; parishioners celebrated the Divine Liturgy under a tarp until they could rebuild it.

Drops of blood

Turner was asked to recreate the icon, including drops of red paint on the saint's knee and a dent as if from a bullet. He considers it the most exciting icon he has written since he first began writing icons in the late 1980s.

"Every icon that goes out there is a little missionary," Turner said from his Port Moody studio.

The artist spends four to six hours a day in his tiny workspace, surrounded by paints, glues, Armenian clay, paper-thin pieces of gold, and other sought-out icon-making materials.

His 75-plus icons are across the archdiocese, including in Corpus Christi Church, the John Paul II Pastoral Centre, Archbishop Carney High School, and many private homes.

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, unveiled on Feb. 25 the icon Turner had written for the pastoral centre, a gold-laden six-foot-tall crucifix. "It's very striking," he said. "He spent an enormous amount of time on it, and I think it's extraordinarily beautiful."

Turner first studied iconography at local workshops run by Russian iconographer Vladislav Andrejev, head of the Prosopon School of Iconology in New York.

Then, for a few summers in the late '90s, Turner studied at the Mount Angel Iconography Institute in Oregon (now the Iconographic Arts Institute). He also worked and travelled to Rome to work alongside iconographer Don Gianluca Busi.

"All of a sudden I realized what a desert we live in in Vancouver! Have you ever been to Europe? The wealth of the artistic heritage is just stunning to us poor colonials."

Frank Turner in his studio. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

Missionary zeal

Turner and several like-minded artists founded the Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild, which held its first meeting in 2002.

"Sacred art was in a pretty sad state in the late 20th century" in North America, he said. "If you deprive people of food, they become hungry, and we have been deprived of food for our souls, so we are hungry."

The founders were bound by a "missionary zeal of trying to improve the state of beauty in Catholic churches."

Mary Catherine Breslin, an illuminated manuscript artist, said the guild brings together individuals who otherwise spend many hours in isolation. "Coming together with other sacred artists, you become greater than yourself."

The guild regularly holds meetings at St. Jude's Parish centre, hosts exhibits, and offers classes and lessons in sacred art. "It keeps alive the tradition that's important to the Church."

Fine arts

Breslin added that Turner received recognition as a master iconographer by one such master from Italy about five years ago.

At times, the prolific artist is interrupted by calls connected with another of his talents: acting. He graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Alberta in 1975.

Turner spent his first 10 years performing on stage. Since then he's appeared in at least 100 TV episodes and over 50 feature films. In 2013 he donned a collar for the short film Letter to a Priest.

He believes his iconography is a sacred calling. "It's the evangelization of the Gospel, because as St. Basil said, what is an icon but the Gospel in paint? But on top of that, it's evangelization for beauty."

Spiritual struggles

A common thought about iconographers is that they must pray as they toil over their work. Turner said that doesn't necessarily mean endless strings of Hail Mary's and Glory Be's.

"The whole experience of iconography is prayerful," he said. "The mental prayer of solving the visual challenges of the icon is prayer. The choice of colour is prayer. The choice of form is prayer. You're constantly asking for guidance as you go through this process."

Turner added he sees the process as a conversation with a saint, constantly asking if each dab of paint brings the image closer to or farther away from the real thing.

"After having done 75 or so icons over the years, the process is remarkably similar: the steps are pretty much the same. The spiritual steps are pretty much the same too," he said.

"There are moments of absolute desolation when the enemy is telling you you can't do this, it's not going to work. You just have to push that aside, push through, do what needs to be done, and with the grace of God, you get through it."