Orthodox Christian iconographer in Boise is part of an ancient tradition

McClatchy Newspapers

Matthew Garrett makes a living from the tip of his paintbrush.

The 34-year-old paints nearly every day, re-creating scenes from the Bible and heavenly images of the risen Jesus, Christian saints and angels on wood and canvas. He carries forward the ancient tradition of Orthodox Christian iconography in a modest West Boise, Idaho, house that he shares with his wife, Lisa, and her cat, Cecelia.

Garrett has been commissioned by individuals and churches all over the country over the past 17 years, finding jobs through old-fashioned word-of-mouth and through his website. His work is in several churches, among them, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Boise.

With a parishioner’s donation, the church commissioned an icon of the Martyrdom of Stephen. After 40 days of prayer, the church unveiled the 3-by-4-foot icon at its 49th anniversary celebration in September.

“It is splendid. … I think a lot of people in the parish were moved by how beautiful it was,” said Father David Wettstein of St. Stephen’s.

Iconography isn’t part of the Episcopal tradition, but it’s not uncommon to find icons in Protestant churches, Wettstein said. He sees icons as “windows to Heaven.” “They teach us about holy living and holy lives,” Wettstein said. “A lot of people learn best visually, or their hearts are captured visually by painting.

“It’s another way of telling the story of faith,” he said.

Some ancient religious leaders, including Pope Gregory I, saw icons as a way to communicate the church’s message to the illiterate.

Like the Orthodox monks and clergymen who came before him, Garrett views the icons he paints primarily as ministry, not art.

“There’s nothing wrong with appreciating their beauty. But that’s not their primary purpose,” Garrett said. The main purpose is to portray the Gospel message.

Garrett doesn’t use “artist” to describe his vocation.

“I tend to think of myself as a technician who is working for the church,” he said.

Many religious iconographers do not sign their work, or they put their name after the phrase “by the hand of.” “The hand of the iconographer is supposed to be guided by the Holy Spirit,” Garrett said.

Garrett was born in Yonkers, N.Y., where his father studied at an Orthodox Church in America theological seminary, St. Vladimir’s. His dad later went to work at a library at the Antiochian Village retreat center near Pittsburgh, and that’s where Garrett grew up.

Garrett doesn’t recall having much talent for drawing or painting as a kid. He is also red/green colorblind.

He grew up surrounded by icons – most painted by his father, who was self-taught – and was always intrigued by them.

“In every Orthodox home, you’re supposed to have an icon corner or wall. It’s where your family says their prayers together,” he said.

When he was 14, he took his first summer job, helping a professional iconographer at the retreat center where his father worked. That’s when he began painting icons. One of his earliest had the skin tone of Kermit the Frog.

“I was pretty terrible,” said Garrett. “I couldn’t tell that my stuff wasn’t good. People would say, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful,’ and I believed them.” It was several years before he could give away his work to anyone other than family members, he joked. He found that he enjoyed the quiet, contemplative nature of iconographic work.

To improve his skills, he spent his summers and free time in an apprenticeship – even after he was in college. He considered pursuing a degree in marine biology but ended up with a liberal arts degree.

Degree in hand, he committed himself full-time to iconography. It took a few years to build up enough referrals to make a living.

Garrett will make icons for any Christian denomination, but does icons only in Orthodox style. All of the saints before the 11th century are the same for the Catholic and Orthodox churches (before the East-West Schism), he noted.

His favorite iconographer is Michael Damaskenos, a 16th-century Greek who painted in Venice. His work was influenced by Eastern and Western traditions.

“It’s very beautiful work. It’s technically very, very well done,” Garrett said.

Before working, iconographers always say a prayer. It is considered important to be in the right frame of mind before working; conflicts should be resolved.

The ancients used brushes made from natural hair (such as badger) and painted with tempera (egg yolk, water, pigment). Garrett uses modern materials, including a synthetic, long-bristled script liner brush and acrylics (largely because they dry quickly and he can create the same effects).

Most icons contain gold leaf. Garrett uses 23-karat gold because the lower the karat, the whiter the gold looks.

“It’s the color that I like,” he said.

As for the challenge posed by his red/green color blindness, Garrett said he adapted early on. Paints are labeled, and he knows color theory. If he needs help, he consults his wife, or asks God to guide him.

Garrett sells mounted prints for $20 to $50, and small icons on wood for $200. Prices range up to $10,000 to $20,000 for an icon covering church walls or ceilings (he paints on canvas; he doesn’t do murals).

Lisa (Gilbert) Garrett was intrigued when she learned Matthew was an iconographer. The pair met through a website for Orthodox singles.

“This is still a living art form. How cool is that?” she recalled of her reaction.

Lisa, a bookkeeper, has lived in Boise most of her adult life. When they decided to wed 2 1/2 years ago, Matthew agreed to move to Idaho. He didn’t know a lot about the state, other than having seen its shape on potato bags. They are expecting their first child.

Idaho isn’t the best location for an iconographer, because it’s close to so few Orthodox churches. There are a half dozen in the state, including St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church, a Russian Orthodox church in Boise.

The Garretts are members of St. Seraphim. Before Easter this year, the church installed a 3-by-4-foot icon by Garrett of Jesus Christ on the Cross, the Virgin Mary and disciple St. John the Theologian.

“This is a traditional icon to have at the table of remembrance where candles are lit for prayers in memory of those who have died,” said Father David Moser of St. Seraphim.

Moser said the church has had other iconographers as members, including Carol Oakes, who was trained at a monastery in Finland. She painted the church’s murals.

Garrett travels regularly for work. Last month, he installed an 8-by-10 foot Mother of God Platytera (Greek for “more spacious than the heavens”), or the Mother of God, in an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. The installation was delayed a few times, so it hung in his living room for a couple of months.

It’s difficult to determine how many professional iconographers there are in the United States. Garrett says associations come and go, and they tend to be populated largely by novices.

The Garretts were in Seattle last week for the Orthodox Church in America Conference. They brought hand-painted icons, mounted prints, prayer cards, greeting cards and Garrett’s self-published collection, “Sanctify Those Who Love the Beauty of Thy House.” Garrett said the icons he has the most difficulty with are those depicting Jesus Christ.

“I find that they are the hardest for me to get right,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because I hold them to a higher standard, or if I’m not worthy to get it just right.”