Fr. Theophan Mackey’s exhibit of Eastern Orthodox icons, ‘Toward the Face of the Divine’, opens Thursday evening at Step Up Gallery in Mesa Public Library. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Fr. Theophan stands before the iconostas at St. Job of Pochaiv Orthodox Church on Trinity Drive. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Father Theophan Mackey’s undergraduate degree is in Fine Art but he says he was never a painter.
“I only took one actual painting class in my undergraduate program at New Mexico State University. I took a lot of drawing and pottery courses,” he said.
When Fr. Theophan was in seminary outside Scranton, New Jersey, to become a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, one summer there was an iconography course being offered by a lady in the Prosopon School of Iconography, which was started in America by Vladislav Andreyev. During the week-long class he worked on an icon of (St. Michael the Archangel) and that is what eventually brought him to having his own exhibition, “Toward the Face of the Divine: Eastern Orthodox Icons”, which runs June 2-24 in the Step Up Gallery.
When Fr. Theophan had been a year out of seminary, he came to Los Alamos where he began attending iconography workshops coordinated by Elizabeth Bezzerides and taught by master iconography Father Mefodii a student of Andreyev.
“Every year until COVID I did an icon under him. This last time I asked him if he would take me on from a distance as a student. I would do the first step, send it to him, he would critique it, I would do the next step, take a picture and send it to him. I’ve done four or five that way. I’ve given some away and I’ve sold some,” Fr. Theophan said.
He said the funny thing is art and iconography are kind of two different beasts so to speak.
“In art you’re trying to express your emotion or evoking an emotion from somebody and it’s all about the ego of the person that’s doing it. In iconography you’re supposed to get your ego out of it. Hardly ever will you find icons that are signed because that’s not what it’s about – it’s not about who made it – it’s about the subject matter. It’s about the prototype, is what we call it. Whoever’s in it is the prototype,” Fr. Theophan said.
He discussed how some people say they are “painting” an icon while others say “writing” an icon.
“I paint it. It is paint and I put it on a board. I think we should come up with a new name for it that’s not paint and not write that only relates to icons,” he said.
When one approaches an icon there’s a language to it, so you can “read” an icon, Fr. Theophan noted.
“Not in like, ‘I read a book’ or you ‘read the scroll’, but you can go through the different layers of symbolism and read what an icon is – like what colors are being used, (those are symbolic), what instruments are there, the hair, the robe, every little bit of it is symbolic. You’re absorbing the aesthetic, you’re absorbing the information about the prototype you’re looking at,” he said.
Fr. Theophan gave the example of Saint Peter and Paul who, when pictured together, quite often are holding a church because they started the Church in Rome. He said St. Olga is often depicted holding a church and a cross, which means she’s a martyr and she started a church.
“You can read them, and that’s another reason why ‘writing an icon’ is proper,” he said.
Fr. Theophan noted that he has taken a break from icon work since recent Lasik surgery because it is harder to work on things that are up close.
“I have taken a break since I had my Lasik surgery because it’s harder to do stuff up close…but once things calm down, I’ll start doing it again. I’ve got a couple in the process right now. I’m mercurial – I do pottery for a while and I get into it and then in winter it’s too cold to do pottery out in the shop so I’ll do icons in the winter,” he said.
Asked how the Step Up Gallery show came about, Fr. Theophan said there was a call for artists for the Village Arts gallery and when he expressed an interest, owner Ken Nebel thought it would be great if he could have an exhibit at the Step Up Gallery, so he agreed. He will be showing some 20 icons ranging from when he started to the present. Some are in acrylic and some in egg tempura.
Fr. Theophan is very much at home at his beloved St. Job of Pochaiv Orthodox Church where there are some 200 icons displayed. He pointed out the sequence of icons that should be placed on the iconostasis, which is the screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave of the church where the congregation stands.
“ The royal doors in the middle will have the Annunciation and the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. To the right is Christ, to the left is the Theotokis, the mother of God. The deacons’ doors will either have angels or deacons on them because those are the doors that the deacons use. You could have St. Stephen and St. Philip but if your church is named Stephen or Philip you don’t want them on the doors,” he said.
But it gets more complicated. The church’s patron saint is to the right and then on the left, there is somebody who is related to the parish. For example, if the church was named after St. John the Baptist, he would be on the right and the icon of the Theophany, when he baptizes Christ, on the left. If you had St. Michael, you might have one of his miracles he’s done since the bible on the left, or another scene, Fr. Theophan said.
“This parish used to be called Dimitri of Rostov and I asked the Bishop if I could put Dimitri on the iconostasis,” he said.
Across the top of the screen are icons of the 12 Great Feasts of the church in order starting in September with the birth of the Theotokis and ending in September with the Domition.
“There’s symbolism everywhere,” Fr. Theophan said. “There are vital, reasons for creating and using icons. They are alternately and at once used as aids in prayer, decoration of the church and of personal homes, as well as instruction on the story of salvation, the Gospel in color, so to speak.”
There is a grand opening Thursday evening from 5:30 p.m. The Step Up Gallery is located on the top level of Mesa Public Library, 2400 Central Ave., and is open Monday –Thursday: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m., Friday: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and is closed Sundays.