Christ Pantocrator

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Vikk Simmons is the co-author of Exploring Houston with Children and Exploring the Arts and Culture in Houston with Children (Spring 2003), has an MFA in Creative Writing and is a certified journal writing instructor. She will have a young adult novel published in 2004. A teacher of creative writing and journal writing, she has also facilitated a weekly Artist Way Group for five years. She often speaks on the creative process and the business and the craft of writing. Her books can be found at and fine bookstores everywhere.

Copyright Vikk Simmons 2002*

In modern Houston, Byzantine art flourishes today. Each year Houstonians are offered a glimpse into this world when they attend the Greek Festival. If you were lucky enough to attend the festival, there's a good chance you met Vivian Karayiannis (Vivi to her friends). A master iconographer, this Houston resident spends her days creating artistic icons in the traditional Byzantine style and teaching iconography.

I first met Vivian earlier this year after attending a workshop on iconography at Christ Cathedral. The speaker, a member of the Greek Orthodox faith, spoke of the spiritual use of icons in prayer. Although I didn't know it at the time, Vivian's iconographic work had already touched me when I participated in a prayer at the end of the workshop. The icon we focused on depicted the annunciation. As I gazed at the icon and took in its beauty and meaning, my praying became more focused and more personal. When I had finished, I realized I had a deep desire to learn more about icons and how they were "written." I wanted to write an icon and create sacred art. As someone who had just spent the last thirteen years practicing the craft of writing, I found some irony in this sudden desire to "write in gold." As it turned out, the workshop leader gave me the name of three practicing Houston iconographers and wished me well. I left the cathedral that day determined to learn all I could about iconography and promptly went to my favorite used bookstore and stocked up on books full of icons, mostly Russian style. That night I surfed the web where I found even more, but still, mostly Russian. A few of my books contained Byzantine style and I seemed to be drawn to those more than others.

Then I came to the iconographers. I scanned the list and decided to call Vivian Karayiannis. We spoke and she invited me over to talk some more about my desire to learn iconography. That Saturday I met Vivian and explained that I had a deep desire to go through the "ancient" way of creating icons. I didn't simply want to paint one but wanted to begin "from the beginning" with the making of the wooden panel and using all the traditional paints, glue, and gesso. As she showed me some of her icons, I realized she had written The Annunciation icon from the workshop. Vivian explained the process and, finally, decided to take me on as a student. For the next three months I began a weekly commute to Vivian's house, across town, to learn how to write an icon-in the ancient way.

Vivian is an excellent teacher who demands the very best her students can give. The discipline of making an icon is lengthy but satisfying in a way that is deeper and more meaningful than any artistic pursuit I'd done before. It was exciting.
It was also daunting. Vivian has been creating icons for years and years. She is masterful in her art and technique, seeking perfection at every stage. Only the best of boards are used; only the smoothest gesso will do. The gold must gleam; the eyes must talk. The intended use of the icon is remembered in every brushstroke. At times I felt I would never approach the work with even a hint of what Vivian brought to the process.

And the more I worked with Vivian, the more I admired her as a teacher, as an iconographer, and most of all, as a person. Born in Agrinio, Greece, Vivian studied art and Byzantine Iconography for four years, then worked for one of the leading iconographers in Greece. She left Greece in 1990 to live in Toronto, Canada and a year later she and her husband moved to Houston where she continued to study art at the University of Houston. Vivian's two daughters are native Houstonians and attend the Annunciation Greek Afternoon School where Vivian also teaches Greek to the children twice a week.
Her work is displayed in numerous private collections, including those of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America and His Eminence Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver, as well as in some of the largest Orthodox churches in Greece and North America. Houstonians can view her icons in the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral, home of the original Greek Festival, as well as St. Basil Church.

I am not the first to find icons fascinating. There is something about the richness of color, the gold backgrounds, and the penetrating portraits that draw the viewer in and convey an atmosphere of peace, even of serenity. These sacred works of art depicting Christian images also have an essential function in the spiritual life of many Christians, particularly Orthodox Christians. Not just "art," icons are considered aids to contemplation and prayer, windows on the divine.
For Vivian, icons are "windows into heaven" and manifest our human participation of the divine through its symbolic pictorial language. As a traditional act of prayer, icons are the sacred practice of writing the word of God. Each brushstroke represents an individual act of prayer, an individual prayer, and by building layers up on layers of strokes, the icon is written.

Icon painting is often referred to as icon writing-or iconography. Icons date back to the 5th and 6th centuries, to a time when few people could read or write. Long before the images of film or television were even imagined, icons provided a pictorial form of storytelling. "Each one," Vivian says, " represents an apostle, saint, person or story from the bible." "The eyes have it," she says. Vivian spends a lot of time on the faces, particularly the eyes and their expression. "When people look at one of my icons, I want them to feel a connection with the real person, with the colors, the eyes, the expression. I want them to look real, to look like real companions."
Vivian seeks to create beauty in this world and her icons are painted in a highly artistic and yet traditional Byzantine style. "I paint from my heart. I want to create a beautiful icon, one that draws the people closer." And that is what I came to know and understand about myself during this initial time studying with Vivian. I, too, wanted to "create a beautiful icon, one that draws the people closer."
In this fast food, drive-thru lifestyle, there is comfort in knowing that there are those who are still committed to the "old ways," the traditional paths. Vivian became my guide and my mentor. She warned me that it could take several months to create an icon of a saint or angel but years to create one depicting the story of the nativity or of Lazarus rising from the dead. For my first icon, she said to stay simple and suggested doing Christ, the Pantocrator.

We began by selecting the birch wood that would become the canvas for the icon. We then sanded and smoothed the wood until it was ready for a muslin canvas and a healthy dose of old fashioned rabbit glue. Over that seven layers of gesso were applied, each layer requiring twenty-four hours drying time. It took a week to simply prepare the board for the paint. During that time we sought supplies from Texas Art Supply and from an online source that carries material needed by those involved in restoration work. The colors, the pigments, all matched those used centuries ago. In addition, Vivian explained the spiritual meanings of each layering of material and paint, the devotional aspect of writing an icon.
Once we drew the image onto the board, we gilded the icon by applying 23K gold leaf. Then it was time to paint. The medium we used is that used by the early iconographers: egg tempera. The paint pigments, the same as those used centuries before. There is something rather humbling in going through the process and realizing that everything we were doing had been done before, time and again, year after year, century after century. Did St. Luke, long considered the first iconographer, use the same process? I wondered.
I watched as Vivian moved quickly to the refrigerator and pulled out a brown egg. With a sharp rap, she cracked the egg and separated the yolk from the egg white. Only the yolk is used with the paint pigments. Then it was my time to crack the egg and keep the yolk intact and separate. Squeezing the yolk sack, the egg and pigment are combined. With painstaking brushstrokes, she showed me how to apply the paint, building layers of color to achieve the final result. Egg tempera is as demanding a medium as Vivian is a teacher. I had to learn to paint each layer quickly before the paint dried.
Over the months, the image on the icon seemed to appear out of nowhere. I would watch and then try my hand; I would struggle and then Vivian would correct. From the beginning, we had decided to do two icons, both of Christ, the Pantocrator. The first had more of Vivian, the second more of me. That first icon is now on the alter of St. Christopher's for the required forty days of blessing before I finally bring it home. Only now, am I starting to realize the full depth of the process and its meaning for my life as I continue my work on the second icon and continue my studies with Vivian. My next attempt will be of the Virgin and Child.

I asked Vivian, one day, When was it that she knew she had succeeded in her art? She said, "When the people who look at my icons whisper and point to the faces-to the eyes," she said. "The expression, they say, it's so real. It's like the icon is talking to me."
When I sit at the back of the church on Sunday mornings, I gaze up at the icon that I helped write, and you know, sometimes I think I hear the icon talking. Coming face to face with an icon can become a life-altering event.

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