This is the first article in a seven-part series on sacred art.
PORT MOODY—Walking into a small art studio on the second floor of a seaside office in Port Moody is a bit like stepping 600 years back in time.
That’s because iconographer Patricia Ballard is so interested in the Gothic and early Renaissance periods, she uses materials from that era including rabbit skin glue and egg tempera.
A member of Vancouver’s Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild and the archdiocesan Sacred Art Commission, Ballard has written gold-laden icons for churches and private collections across the country. But, she admits, she stumbled upon iconography quite by accident.
“I’m trained as a modern artist and I’ve painted all my life,” said Ballard, who received a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Alberta in 1971 and a master of fine arts from the University of British Columbia in 1988.
Living in Ontario in her 20s and 30s, Ballard would exhibit her work once or even twice a year. Her art was secular, but always had an element of the religious. “The subjects were about the individual soul and his or her relationship to God,” said Ballard.
For example, The First Snow shows a child figure standing in a snowy field, with a sun, a symbol of the divine, shining in the sky. “It’s a call to primal innocence. It’s asking us to return to God in simplicity and purity.”
Another secular piece with religious tones is The Pipe Player, Moon, and Stars. “You can take it literally: a girl, playing a pipe in the moonlight. Or, you could see it as a soul, very at peace with the universe and one with God. The music carries you from earth up to heaven.”
While Ballard has always been religious, she never thought her art would become any more religious than a pipe player in the moonlight – until she took a workshop on icons in 1999.
“I was asked to do it. I never thought I would be doing icons, or even wanted to. They were short of people, so I said I would try.” She took the workshop under Vladislav Andreyev of the St. Petersburg Russian tradition and was amazed she could create art that looked like it had fallen out of the Middle Ages.
Ballard found herself taking more courses in iconography and writing her first icon for St. Stephen’s Church in North Vancouver in 2000.
Embracing early Renaissance
The more Ballard immersed herself in iconography, the more she realized she would leave secular, modern art behind. “I found I couldn’t really do both. I focused on the spiritual.”
She furthered her studies in sacred art with Vladimir Blagonadezhdin of the Byzantine tradition, Port Moody iconographer Frank Turner, and European master guilder Ana Diaz-Drew. Ballard discovered her favourite era was early Renaissance, when iconography started to embrace less rigid, more natural figures.
“I like the
mystical, otherworldly feel about it, but at the same time it’s just beginning
to be a bit more realistic, a bit more natural. That seems to be the space that
I like to work in.”
In addition to the icon of St. Stephen, her public works include The Annunciation, on display in the chapel at the John Paul II Pastoral Centre, and the refurbished Stations of the Cross at St. Clare of Assisi Church in Coquitlam.
She eschews modern paints for traditional materials including rabbit skin glue (literally made from the skin of a rabbit), egg yolk, wine, red clay, and powdered pigments.
“There’s something about working in the same materials that were done a thousand years ago. You’re carrying on this tradition of the Church. I like that. I like the sense of being one with the past and one with the future.”
As she works, Ballard also listens to music from that era, playing Gregorian chant on a little CD player in a corner of the room. “It’s all mystical music, and it comes from the same world.”
Art as prayer
Ballard, who attends daily Mass, believes prayer and strong personal devotion give her artwork spiritual depth.
“You have to live the work. You can’t pretend you are a sacred artist. It has to be truthful.”
She immerses herself in her subject every time she pulls out a burnisher, paint brush, or tube of glue. “As I’m working, I’m thinking about, for example, what Mary is going through. What she’s thinking about as she’s being crowned and what it cost her to be in that position,” said Ballard as she worked on her current masterpiece, a work inspired by Giacomo di Mino’s 14th-century work The Coronation of the Virgin.
For Ballard, it takes a lot of time, prayer, and meditation to complete an icon. She anticipates her current project, which she began in the summer, will take three years to complete.
Writing icons “is a completely different way of working” compared to modern painting. “You’re lifting people up to see things from the invisible world.”
Ballard does not usually take commissions, opting instead to write an icon she’s particularly interested in, working meticulously for years on a piece until she is satisfied with it, then contacting interested buyers. She finds it incredibly humbling when a church takes interest in a finished piece.
You’re helping people pray.
“It’s a privilege to be able to do artwork that will be placed in a church,” she said. “You’re helping people pray. You’re helping people participate in the Mass and the images are visual counterparts of what the Scripture is saying. Scripture speaks to you in words and paintings speak to you in images, but it’s the same message.”
It still takes her aback when she sees someone venerating an icon she wrote.
“It’s like the angels and saints are present to them in the church,” she said with a smile. “You don’t own your talents, you share them. God gave them to you to share with other people.”
The B.C. Catholic will publish a series on features on other members of the Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild over the next several weeks.