Painting Holy Women Icons

February 13, 2017

As an artist and scholar of art and religion, I have long known the impact of images on spiritual formation. In many Presbyterian churches, members color or draw as a method of prayer or an accompaniment to meditation. In other traditions—like Eastern Orthodox Christianity—images provide a visual entry point into faith. Religious iconography invites viewers to enhance their worship by gazing at an icon of Jesus or a saint. As an ordained queer woman, I have also long known that much of iconography excludes anyone who looks and loves like me. Though there are some women depicted in Orthodox iconography, I found myself at a loss when it came to positive, affirming,diverse and empowering icons of women.

So, in 2010, I began a lifelong project of subverting this virtually all-male sainthood by painting “holy women icons”—traditional iconography with a folk feminist twist. Though there are certainly more to paint, nearly 50 women fill my book Holy Women Icons. In it, an image of each icon accompanies an essay describing the subject’s life and work. Though most of the originals have been sold, 12 currently remain “on tour” in churches, seminaries, galleries and women’s centers.

I am a strong believer in the sentiment, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” It is for this reason that I am a preacher. It is for this reason that I earned a PhD. It is for this reason that I paint. I do these things because of the many women who have never seen a preacher who was one of them, a scholar who was one of them or an icon depicting them. I want women to see reflections of their own holiness canonized in my brush strokes, redeemed on canvas as worthwhile and beloved.

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