"Icons: Windows to Heaven"
Getting To Know the Iconographers
Cheryl Ann Pituch and Niko Chocheli will be presenting workshops at Antiochian Village for the event, “Icons: Windows to Heaven,” November 4–7, 2010. Vasiliki Oldziey, Christian Education Coordinator for the Diocese of Wichita and the Midwest, interviewed them this summer. The Department of Christian Education  sponsors the annual Orthodox Institute , and the theme of this year’s event is iconography. The Institute will include several courses on iconography and provide participants an opportunity to learn how to write icons (“Utilizing Crafts”). Teacher-training courses and the Church School Director Seminar are also scheduled for the Institute. Amateur or professional iconographers are encouraged to bring an icon for our “Festival of Orthodoxy” display. If you love icons, don’t miss this opportunity! For more information or a brochure, please e-mail the department at email@example.com, or visit our website .
Cheryl Ann Pituch
Cheryl Ann has been married for thirty-eight years to Eugene Pituch and is the mother of four children and the grandmother of two. She currently resides in Davidsville, Pennsylvania, a small town in the Laurel Mountains, 92 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Her icons are featured in the current Icon Calendar from Conciliar Press.
1. Icons were not part of your early life. Tell us how icons have changed your life.
I grew up in the Presbyterian Church and was taught that any statues or “pictures” were never to be kissed or prayed before in any way. I struggled to understand icons, in order to embrace the faith. I have been an Orthodox Christian for 32 years and have been painting for about 26 years. Now, I can’t imagine life without icons. The most dramatic change in my life with icons is prayer. Icons open constant opportunities to pray. They have changed my life just by being visible and witnessing (in their silence) their love for God, and stirring my heart to do more.
2. Were you a trained artist before you began painting icons?
No. I prayed to the Lord after converting to Orthodoxy and asked how I could serve Him. I never asked for the ability to paint, since icons were still slowly coming into my life. I just asked to serve the Lord in whatever way He wanted me to. This was His answer.
3. Who taught you to write icons or are you self-taught?
Over the last 25 years, I have trained under two priests and a layman. The guidance that they have given me goes beyond technical and stylistic instruction. Their witness to the faith through their iconography and their role as teachers taught me as much about Orthodoxy as about iconography. I am grateful to God for giving me their guidance and their friendship.
4. Do you work in a particular style of iconography?
I guess I lean more towards the Slavic style, but I hope I have developed a style that speaks to the people of this country. We need to spread the Gospel to all and not be restricted to what is Greek, Antiochian, Russian, and so on.
5. Do you have a favorite iconographer?
Not really. I love icons and ﬁnd them all mystically beautiful. In my studio I have an icon print of Our Lord done by Rublev that I have prayed in front of for years. So, I guess he could be a “favorite.”
6. What impact do you hope you icons will have on the viewer? What responsibility does an iconographer have to the person praying before the icon?
This is easy. The icon must be a window to the kingdom of heaven for the viewer or I have not been successful in my vocation. It is not about me. As St. John the Baptist said, “He must increase and I must decrease.” So, too, the iconographer must take the back seat and let the Lord take over in the icon. The objective is to pray and communicate with God through the icon. That is all that matters. It is my responsibility to create within the theology of the Orthodox Church, to research what I am doing to the best of my ability so I do not take away, but enhance the observer’s experience before an icon.
7. How do you prepare for writing an icon?
A rule of prayer is a must before starting anything, and I don’t even try if I am not at peace with everyone before going to the studio.
8. What would you recommend for someone starting out studying iconography?
They should learn as much as they can about icons in the context of the faith and the tradition of the Orthodox Church. I recommend books on the history of iconography such as Early Christian and Byzantine Art by John Beckwith; Orthodox Iconography by Constantine Cavarnos, and Doors of Perception: Icons and Their Spiritual Signiﬁcance by John Baggley. Technique can be studied by reading The Painter’s Manual of Dionysios of Fourna. Iconographers who write for the Church must be Orthodox and participate in the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church in order to be a vehicle through which the Truth can be transmitted. Finally, ﬁnd an iconographer of good reputation, whose iconography is a witness of a prayerful spirit, to study with. Working as an apprentice under another iconographer is by far the best way to learn this vocation. Seek God’s will for your life. If you want to serve Him, then it doesn’t matter what it is you do for Him. Iconography may or may not be for you, so I believe it is critical to be ready to serve wherever the Lord wants you. If you are open to God’s will, He will put you where He needs you. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Illustrator and iconographer, Niko Chocheli grew up in George while it was still a part of the Soviet Empire. During those years in Georgia, he witnessed both the oppression of Communism, the collapse of the Soviet regime, and the return and resurrection of the Orthodox Church. He emigrated to the U.S. 15 years ago when he was 27 years old.
1. You grew up in the Republic of Georgia while it was still under Communist domination and the churches had been closed, destroyed or turned into museums. Were there icons in homes and churches during this time?
We still had icons in our homes. People had to be careful, though, because you could lose your job or be arrested for going to church. Even though most of the churches had been stripped of their icons, the faithful still prayed and lit candles directly on the stone walls where icons had once been, even if there was only one wall left standing. Today you can see the sooty remains of candles lit by generations of believers coming to pray in these holy places during the Communist regime. Seventy years of Communism did not erase the faith of this Christian nation that had defended Christianity for 2000 years.
2. How did living under the oppression of Communism inﬂuence you in your artwork and your iconography?
I am forever grateful to my mother, Leila, who took me to church and taught me to pray, despite the presence of the Communists. She recently suffered a stroke and is recuperating, so I ask that everyone pray for her full recovery. I ﬁnd my inspiration from what I saw in Georgia, the oldest Orthodox country with a strong Christian identity that cannot be erased from the heart or memory. Every image I create is inﬂuenced by that experience.
3. Who taught you to write icons, or are you self-taught?
I am self-taught. There were no schools of iconography in Georgia when I lived there. They had long been abolished. I learned by copying examples of icons and observing what I saw in museums, cathedrals (which are now ﬂourishing), and books. Formally, my training is in classical ﬁne arts. Of course, iconography is a different type of skill, which requires a solid liturgical life. The Church is the true teacher.
4. Do you work in a particular style of iconography, e.g., Russian Byzantine or Greek Byzantine?
I see iconography as universal and prefer not to label or judge icons in that way. They are sacred objects. Who is represented is more important than who painted the icon or the style in which it is painted. Icons should always be approached as sacred images to be venerated, as holy, not as artwork. However, I really like the ancient icons in Georgia because they are especially mystical and there is power in their simplicity.
5. Do you have a favorite iconographer (e.g., Rublev, or Theophanes the Greek, or some other iconographer from the past)?
This approach makes one think of icons in a secular sense, when really it is about the image and God working through the iconographer. All glory should go to God. Many of my favorite icons are not identiﬁable as to who wrote them. The icon is a shared creation between the Church and the iconographer; it is not done alone. However, the icon is also a reﬂection of the spiritual maturity of the iconographer. The ultimate measuring spoon is the spiritual maturity and inner reﬂection, not artistic skill.
6. How did you get involved in illustrating?
It occurred to us (to me and to St. Vladimir’s Press) that there were no Orthodox books for Orthodox children with Orthodox images. Through these books (Prepare O Bethlehem; The Praises: Psalm 148; Christ in the Old Testament; and The Book of Jonah) we hoped to provide a proper understanding of the Orthodox universe. Illustrating allows me to combine elements of the real and tangible world (for example, kittens and elephants) in a classical style of art, with the mystical world in a style reminiscent of iconography.
7. What do you hope someone standing before an icon that you have written will take away with them? What impact do you hope the icon will have on them?
The experience has to do with what the observer brings to the icon. The experience is between the observer and the prototype.
8. What responsibility do you think an iconographer has to the person praying before the icon?
My responsibility lies in my being a faithful and joyful Christian. I try to faithfully write the icons. God creates the beauty and I see myself as His instrument. That does not relieve me of my responsibility to depict the prototype in accordance with Church Tradition, but it is not about my skill as an artist, but about the power God gives in the writing of the icon.
9. How do you prepare for writing an icon?
I begin with a blessing from my spiritual father and then prayer and fasting. When I am working on an icon, I am always thinking of Him and serving Him. Sometimes, coming from a hectic day in the outside world, I may not have peace when it’s time to begin work. Prayer prepares me, and the actual work itself is like a prayer. Then, in time, the peace will come. God has mercy on you, but you always try to do what is right.
10. What would you recommend to someone starting out to write icons? What books would you recommend for them to read? Which, if any, art classes would you recommend they take?
The beginner should ﬁrst receive a blessing from his or her priest to do this work. He or she should have a strong and active liturgical life, attend the services of the Church, fast, pray, and receive Holy Communion on a regular basis. He or she should love Christ, because in icons we are depicting the one we love, Jesus Christ. The artistic skills may not matter as much when you love Christ. The beginner should observe and study icons in the church and in books to develop an eye for iconographic style. Read Scripture and the Church Fathers. A good book on icons to read is Byzantine Sacred Art, by Constantine Cavarnos. Of course, practice drawing by copying samples with pencil, beginning with the simpler images such as the angels. Visit a monastery to experience the quiet and the peace that exists there.
If I may, I would like to take this opportunity to give thanks and glory to God for everything. Also, my thanks to Bishop Thomas for blessing the exhibit at the museum; the curator, Julia Ritter; Barli Ross, Orthodox Group Coordinator; and Paul Finley, Director at the Antiochian Village, for their help and support with the exhibit; and to the Antiochian Archdiocese for the love they have shown me. Also, I want to thank my spiritual fathers, the Very Rev. Boniface Black, Rev. Noah Bushelli, and Rev. Petre Kruashvili, for their continuing support and prayer, and my dear wife Kristen, who is always at my side.
These interviews first appeared in the WORD magazine, September, 2010, pp. 18-20.