This is the fifth article in a series on sacred art.
PORT MOODY—Iconography may be an ancient art, but thanks to enthusiastic artists like Christine Lim-Labossière, it may never go out of style.
This media guru from Singapore only began writing icons three years ago, and left a 30-year career in the film and media industry to do it.
New kid on the block
Most members of the Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild are trained artists and have been creating religious pieces for decades. Lim-Labossière never went to art school and only started writing icons in 2015.
“I’m the new kid on the block,” she laughed during an interview with The B.C. Catholic at her cozy home studio in Port Moody, the City of the Arts.
Lim-Labossière enjoyed drawing as a child, but never took it seriously, instead becoming a filmmaker and T.V. producer in her homeland, Singapore. When she moved to Canada in 2001, she switched careers and got a job as an analyst for the federal government, studying grant applications for Canadian film and T.V. projects. When she was done being a “bureaucrat,” she left the government job and started an event management and production company, Merging Media.
In 2004, somewhere in the midst of her career changes (what Lim-Labossière calls her “nine lives”), she took a trip to Moscow. That’s where she first discovered iconography.
“I was so blown away.” In fact, the former T.V. producer was so intrigued, she started trying to write icons as soon as she returned home. “I had no idea how to paint. I never went to art school,” she said. “I didn’t even know how to hold a paint brush properly!”
When work demanded her time and attention, Lim-Labossière put down the paint brush. She would only pick it up again 11 years later.
The busy CEO of Merging Media decided to take a sabbatical three years ago. Now with more spare time, Lim-Labossière sought out an arts instructor and connected with the Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild. There, she met expert iconographer and one of the guild’s founders, Frank Turner.
She spent months learning from and working alongside Turner, whose studio is just down the road from her home. She produced her first icon under strict, traditional iconography rules and under the keen eye of a true master.
“It was so enlightening and so moving in terms of what I wanted, because I wanted to do sacred art to draw closer to my faith.”
Lim-Labossière also went on to take a retreat at an iconography school in Oregon, after which she made the decision to leave Merging Media and become a full-time artist. “I just wanted to do something that I thought was more meaningful than what I was doing,” she said. “I decided I’m going to take this seriously.”
She transformed the basement of her home into an art studio and started taking drawing and painting classes to improve her skills.
Compared to other artists in the guild, Lim-Labossière is a newbie. Yet, she’s already had a fair share of successes.
Lim-Labossière has embarked on a huge project that will take years to complete: a series of icons tracing important events in Jesus’ life, including his baptism and crucifixion. During a retreat with the artists’ guild in June, she was working on his Nativity when Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, of Vancouver stopped by. Archbishop Miller, a strong supporter of local sacred artists, was also on retreat at Westminster Abbey and wanted to see how the guild was doing.
“I said: I’m working on this new piece. Would you like it for your Christmas card?”
Archbishop Miller agreed. He sent a Christmas card featuring prints of Lim-Labossière’s design to many friends and supporters in December 2017. He also wrote a letter to the artist thanking her for her work. Lim-Labossière was so thrilled, she framed it.
“He’s wonderful. He’s really supportive,” she said. “This was the first time he’d seen my art close up.” (That icon also made the front cover of The B.C. Catholic's 2017 Christmas issue).
Her public works also include icons at St. Clare of Assisi Church in Coquitlam and at a hospice in Singapore. She has also created many gold-laden pieces for family, friends, and other private collectors.
In the summer of 2017, her work was featured at “Learn, Create, Live,” an arts exhibition in Port Moody. “I feel like I’m on the early steps of a long journey, and it’s very exciting.”
Striking a balance
Lim-Labossière has found her iconography tastes walk a fine line between the contemporary and the ancient.
“I started off learning the really traditional, orthodox, iconography. Last year, I discovered there’s a whole movement in Ukraine and Romania where younger artists are taking this art form and expressing it in a really contemporary voice.”
Modern icons still use many of the same symbols, colours, and forms as the traditional iconography she learned from artists like Turner. For example, Mary is still portrayed with one star on each shoulder and one on her head, as a sign of her perpetual virginity. A dove always symbolizes the Holy Spirit, and the colour blue still signifies divinity.
But while traditional figures might seem angry or devoid of emotion, figures in modern iconography tend to be more realistic.
“It’s like staging Shakespearean tragedy in a more contemporary way. It’s still Shakespeare. It’s still the same words and the same story we’re trying to tell,” she said. “Some purists might not agree with that, but it’s one of many expressions.”
Even while writing modern icons, Lim-Labossière loves to use traditional materials: pigments, thin gold leaf sheets, egg yolk, and wine. She enjoys mixing her own paints and finds the process of writing an icon, from drawing a design to painting finishing touches, peaceful and prayerful.
“The function of the icon,” is “to be able to pray with the image,” she said. “As long as you can pray with it, and access the liturgy through that image, it can be considered an icon.”
See www.bccatholic.ca for more articles on local sacred artists!