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Icons In Transformation

By Crissy Neville 

The world of traditional sacred art meets figurative and abstract expressionism in contemporary artist Ludmila Pawlowska’s “Icons in Transformation.” The internationally renowned exhibit is on display now through January 11 at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Fayetteville. 

An opening reception was held September 8, offering the first public glimpse of the exhibit and giving attendees the chance to meet Pawlowska and to enjoy music and refreshments. The event ushered in four months of special programming and events designed to immerse the local community in the spiritually artistic realm. 

The Rev. Jeff Thornberg, rector at Holy Trinity, is excited to have this widely acclaimed tour in residence at the church. 

“We see hosting this exhibit as a great window into the Holy,” he said. “We are happy to support amazing people doing amazing things to serve God.” 

And amaze it has. Having traveled to cathedrals, churches, museums and art galleries across Europe and the United States, the exhibit has been seen by more than 150,000 people in this country and by many more than that worldwide. The Russian-born artist has shown in 27 states over the last 8 years and makes her debut in North Carolina at Holy Trinity. 

“We are very happy to be here,” Pawlowska said. “The people in Fayetteville have shown us great hospitality and enormous support.” 

“Icons in Transformation” features over 100 selections from Pawlowska’s original collection of more than 200 pieces, as well as 15 traditional icons made by iconographers at the Vasilevsky Monastery in Suzdal, Russia. 

The term icon comes from the Greek word meaning “image” and it is used to refer to religious works of art from the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, Roman Catholic and certain Eastern Catholic churches. Icons are most commonly associated with portrait-style images concentrating on one or two central figures, including Christ, Mary, saints or angels, though there may be other religious imagery as well. Both traditional and modern icons are sometimes described as “windows to heaven.” 

Pawlowska describes her contemporary work with icons as “three-dimensional paintings.” Using a unique style of iconography, she builds up reliefs employing various symbolic colors and mixed media, including wood, metal, fabric, stones, ceramics and objects such as fossils and coins. Combining painting and sculpting techniques, the artist builds the constructs in a step-by-step, layer-by-layer manner to express her visual ideas. Some of the works were created some 20 years ago, when Pawlowka began making icons in her studio in Sweden. Others were made this year. Pawloska is continually adding to the exhibit and adapting it. 

“Each piece starts with a question,” she said. “What I make is my attempt to answer the question. Ideas come to me and they can be easy to start, difficult to follow, but impossible to finish. As an artist, you are never satisfied, so the installation changes as I travel place to place. Each new space provides yet a new challenge, and while I always attempt to, I never fully answer my questions.” 

At Holy Trinity, Pawlowska wanted to incorporate the meaning of the church’s name into her scenes and vignettes. She divided the sanctuary into three spaces, connected by the nave, seeking to create an artistic labyrinth for viewers to navigate. She also incorporated the church’s high ceilings and open concept into her exhibit design. The church’s walls, ceilings, floors and even aerial space have been transformed to showcase the collection. 

Transformation, she explained, is what the show is all about. 

“My work is contemporary art inspired by classical icons found in the orthodox tradition,” she said. “The exhibit showcases the essence of icons as they have been used for centuries as sacred images, pointing the viewers to God. My pieces are transformations of icons in modern art, but that is only one level of the transformation I hope to have happen.” 

Pawloska said the transformation of each space is intended to help viewers contemplate and meditate on the art as a way to find the divine. She stressed she particularly hopes all visitors will find transformation through “the message portrayed and the power of art.” 

“How the art is created is unique, but the meaning, the purpose, the message – this is the most important element for an artist,” she said. “My message in art is about two dimensions – the seen and the unseen, the visible and the invisible. It is like our individual faith in God – we believe but we cannot see. My greatest challenge is to portray the unseen, what I call the divine light, the holy light.”  

Pawlowska hopes to create a dialogue between art and its viewer. She sees herself as the messenger who is starting that conversation. And though the historic foundations of icons are from the traditions of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, she sees her message as one for all faiths, religions and backgrounds. 

“I am a member of an orthodox church where the icon has a central place in liturgy,” she said. “However, art does not have borders. It does not belong to just one church or faith. Art represents an ongoing search for understanding. My search for light and how to find it is an international, ecumenical message. The message is far-reaching and applicable to all faiths.” 

When viewing Pawlowska’s creations, you may have the feeling that the dialogue, or message, of which the artist speaks is not one-sided, but actually interactive. This is because the icon’s purpose is to represent the divine in a way that beckons the viewer. Many of the pieces include images of eyes. Many lack spatial depth. As such, the pieces almost seem aware of the viewer’s presence. The eyes, in many cases, may even follow your gaze. 

Interpretations of Holy Faces, the Crucifix, the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Veil of Veronica, Mary with Child, Gates to Paradise, and other religious images are repeated throughout “Icons in Transformation.” For 1,500 years, strict canons of methodology have carefully preserved traditional iconography. Pawlowska’s inspired pieces keep the same message of the icons alive in a contemporary way. 

Thornberg hopes that message will be embraced by his parishioners as well as the community at large. 

 “One thing we say here every Sunday at Holy Trinity is that we are made better because anyone chooses to spend time among us,” he said. “My hope is that through ‘Icons in Transformation’ we will be made that much better as we engage our community. We hope to engage more people through our weekly worship services, exhibit tours and through the many events offered with the tour.” 

Planned events include presentations about icons from area university professors and art teachers, a concert by the Cumberland Oratorio Singers, an evening of jazz, labyrinth meditation walks, prayer-focused yoga classes, a pumpkin-carving class where children can carve their favorite saint, “Paint with the Saints” painting classes for adults and other art lessons for kids, a Folk Christmas Cantata by the Sweet Tea Shakespeare theater troupe, guided tours of the exhibit and more. 

For a full schedule of events, visit the church’s website – www.holytrinityfay.org – its Facebook page. 

Make a date to come see the icons for yourself. And get ready to be transformed.