If creating art is inherently an act of faith — that what one sees in their mind’s eye will come to fruition as a painting, a sculpture, a tapestry — then painting icons is an act of faith rooted in faith. It’s not a practice retired public-school art teacher Suzanne Schleck ever imagined immersing herself in, but it was a calling she could not ignore.
“I’m Episcopalian and had joined a new parish where we live in New Jersey,” Schleck recalls. “A friend I met there loved icons. I wasn’t very familiar with them but in a subsequent conversation with the rector, I had a realization that I needed to paint icons. So, the initial pull was one of faith, because I had no idea how to paint them.”
She also confesses she didn’t actually like them, noting the medium was barely covered in her studies for an art degree from the University of Missouri decades ago. “They were recognized as part of art history but not admired, so I carried that attitude with me for years until I ran into them head on.”
And then, she was all in. She read an article in the national Episcopalian diocese newsletter about an Episcopal priest who painted them, and he was someone her rector knew well. When she reached out to Rev. John Walsted he told her he didn’t have time to teach but invited her to drive out to see him in Staten Island; the initial meeting turned into nearly 20 years of lessons.
Her first efforts were gifts for friends, but quickly she received commissions, and her icons are in homes and churches around the country. Eighteen years ago, she led her first week-long iconography workshop at Kanuga Conference & Retreat Center in Hendersonville, and says many of her students have attended every year.
All students, first timers and veterans, follow the same technique — beginning with a gesso-covered panel and building the icon with gold leaf and egg tempera from there. “If there’s anything I want to say about painting icons, it is a very hopeful technique. You start with the very darkest colors; as you add layers of light, a completed face [emerges]. It’s such a hopeful process and I think that attracts people.”
The full day in the studio is bookended by morning and evening prayer, with an afternoon break for a walk around the grounds or a nap. This year, students can choose one of three subjects — St. Patrick, “Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace,” or Joan of Arc.
“When I started doing this, there were about 130 men on our calendar of saints and just 21 women, so I decided I would do icons of the women. I’ve been interested in Joan of Arc since studying French in high school and college. More than one student has told me how much they’re looking forward to doing her. She is truly an icon.”
Iconography with Suzanne Schleck: The Gospel in Line and Color runs Saturday, Feb. 4 through Friday, Feb. 10. For more information, see.