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Catholic Vancouver Nov. 27, 2017

Sacred Art is alive and well in Vancouver

By Agnieszka Ruck

Iconographer Patricia Ballard lays gold leaf on an icon in her small Port Moody studio. (Photos by Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

VANCOUVER—Calligraphy, embroidery, and iconography are not a thing of the past. Just ask any of the 80 – and counting – members of the Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild. (Members include patrons and non-artists.)

“It’s an eclectic group of different people” working hard to make local churches more beautiful, said president and iconographer Steve Knight. Among the many members are 14 sacred artists. Their craft? Anything from creating statues to painting stained glass to sewing altar cloths. 

“The purpose of art, at least for us as sacred artists,” said calligrapher John Suter, “is to help proclaim the Gospel, to help people with their faith journey.”

Eight members invited The B.C. Catholic for a behind-the-scenes look into their lives and their studios.

Patricia Ballard

Iconographer Patricia Ballard didn’t start her career creating religious art. Trained at the Universities of Alberta and British Columbia, Ballard became a professional painter, creating modern pieces including The Juggler and the The First Snow.

It was only when she reluctantly took an iconography course that she discovered a passion for producing sacred art with old-fashioned materials like rabbit skin glue and egg tempera. “I was amazed that I could actually do something that looked like it came from the Middle Ages!”

Ballard believes going to daily Mass brings true depth to her work. Some of her icons are on display at St. Stephen’s Church in North Vancouver and the John Paul II Pastoral Centre chapel.

Laura and John Gilroy

This duo was trained by one of England’s oldest stained glass studios and over the years has created stunning works of art for parishes across the Lower Mainland and beyond.

Their work can be found in such places as Sacred Heart Cathedral (Kamloops), the John Paul II Pastoral Centre (Vancouver), All Saints Catholic Church (Coquitlam), and St. Andrew’s Cathedral (Victoria).

Laura is particularly skilled with creating designs and sketches, while John does most of the glass cutting and leads the installation. “It’s not intentional, but it’s who’s better at whatever. People ask us: ‘How do you work together all the time and you’ve been married for 20-odd years?’ Well, I don’t know,” laughed John.

Chris Kielesinski

The multi-talented Chris Kielesinski was discovered at age 17 when one of his teachers caught him doodling in class – and liked what he saw. That landed his drawings in the school yearbook and gave him an artistic reputation at school.

Kielesinski completed his first religious painting for a church art show as a teen. He also draws cartoons and caricatures, illustrates children’s books, paints water colour posters, creates sculptures out of paper or foam, designs costumes, and much more.

Though never formally trained at art school, Kielesinski founded the Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild with other talented artists in 2003.

“People love beauty. Children love beauty. They can tell you what looks good and what looks ugly,” he said. “We are the same way. We keep going for beauty. We want something that moves you. That’s sacred art.”

Steve Knight

The guild’s president, Steve Knight, has written more than 80 icons for churches and private homes in the Archdiocese of Vancouver as well as in Alberta, Brazil, Ireland, and Germany.

Possibly his most famous works are of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. The icons were commissioned for the historic double-canonization in 2014 and seen by 9,000 Catholics celebrating the event at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum.

Knight, a recently retired Catholic elementary school teacher, also gives workshops on iconography for children and adults. “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,” he said.

Christine Lim-Labossière

Anyone receiving a Christmas card from Archbishop Miller this year will be looking at Christine Lim-Labossière’s handiwork, a modern icon of the Nativity.

Lim-Labossière developed an interest in writing icons after a 30-year career in media and event organization. “I was working in the commercial and media industry. Then in 2004, I went to Moscow, and that’s when I first discovered iconography. I was blown away.”

Her latest icons were featured in the Port Moody Arts Centre’s exhibit Learn, Create, Live this summer.

Ilona Payne

Ilona Payne discovered a passion for sewing vestments and altar linens about five years ago. Since then, she has sewn hundreds of linens, a dozen stoles, seven altar cloths, five vestments, and even a few tabernacle veils.

She does her work by hand, treating each stitch as an action for God. “I think of the quote from St. Therese, the Little Flower, that even ‘to pick up a pin can save a soul.’ It’s almost as if each stitch can be that prayer,” said Payne.

“Each time I take a stitch through the linen or run an embroidery thread through, if I am sufficiently focused and I’m giving that gift to God, that is the Little Way.”

A member of St. James Parish in Abbotsford, she does it all for love.

John Suter

This 87-year-old calligrapher is proving that illuminated manuscripts are not out of style. One of his recent masterpieces is a six-volume work containing all 150 Psalms. 

Using writing styles from as far back in history as the fourth century, John Suter spent 40 hours a week writing out and illustrating each Psalm. He devoted three years to the project.

“I look at a Psalm and I say: ‘Lord, what do you want to say to me with this?’”

Suter, born in Switzerland, also has a passion for wood carving and used it to create a crucifix for a church in Saskatoon, as well as several wooden horses for private homes.

Throughout Advent and Christmas, check out The B.C. Catholic for articles about each of these artists!