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Iconographer shares skills, tradition through seminars

| Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, 1:39 p.m.

He'll go any distance to tell the love story, which began when he was 12.

The Rev. Peter Pearson will visit Pittsburgh to lead an icon retreat at the Mt. Alvernia campus of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Millvale from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. March 11 through March 15. After 43 years, he still is exploring his passion for this ancient artistry and has created hundreds of icons for private collections, churches and institutions.

As a boy, he remembers seeing his first icon, “The Mother of God with Three Hands,” a painting connected with St. John of Damascus, who defended the continued use of this Orthodox devotional art style in the eighth century. As the story is told, the saint's written defense was so fiery that in punishment, his right hand was cut off. But after many prayers of healing in front of the icon, his hand miraculously was restored. In thanksgiving, St. John added a silver hand-shaped token to the painting.

“It's kind of a ‘Where's Waldo?' thing,” Pearson said about when people see the icon for the first time.

“Then, they say, ‘Oh, three hands.'”

Pearson was struck by the beauty within the image.

He used cardboard and markers for his first exploration of the art. Then, with his mother's ceramic paints and an old drawer, he created a kind of “Mary in a Shadow Box.”

“There's so much more than technique. There's history, theology, technology,” he said, “but the most significant component of the process is prayer.”

By continuing to pray, he said, “you paint what you know, not what you know about.”

In his Irish-Catholic household, there always were plenty of holy cards and statues to give the young artist inspiration.

“There were trappings of religion always around us in Williamsport, but no experience with the Byzantine Catholics,” Pearson, 55, now of Scranton, said.

Because of this interest in icons, he became “the alien artist.”

“I was always the kid doing something unusual,” he said. “My parents rolled their eyes a lot.”

He became a Catholic priest and a well-known iconographer who has studied with teachers all around the country. Today, he is an Episcopal priest and has conducted hundreds of seminars of his own. He also has written books that explore icon traditions.

When he lived in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood, a little more than 10 years ago, he welcomed Sister Rosaire Kopczenski of Mt. Alvernia and others to his icon studio once a week. There, they would paint and drink tea.

“Peter was always guiding us to touch the ‘world behind the icon' we were painting…” Sister Rosaire said. “As one learned the depth of meaning behind the icon, a kind of quiet reverence for our work grew.”

That is Pearson's hope for any student.

The group at the Mt. Alvernia retreat will paint an angel after Pearson draws the pattern and sets the tone.

“We'll start with the face and work our way out,” he explained, “beginning with the darkest shadow tones and building light upon it. It's a backwards kind of painting.”

As they gain confidence and learn from each other, he'll remind them, “Be gentle with yourself. Michelangelo did not begin with the Sistine Chapel.”

Sister Rosaire finds icon painting, which she still does, to be contemplative.

“In the icon classes, a sacred bond develops among the students,” she said.

After 15 to 20 years, Pearson said, if students practice, study and pray long enough, they'll be able to design their own icon.

“In painting icons, you learn the tradition and forget yourself,” he said, “unlike in Western art, when you express yourself.”

When the piece is finished, there are no signatures to scrawl across the painting. Rather, iconographers sign the reverse of the piece.

“We do our best and step back,” Pearson said.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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