Prof Paints/Photographs Religious Icons

by Kate Elizabeth Queram, Rocktown Weekly

Last year, Jerry Holsopple spent his days teaching in the visual and communication arts department at Eastern Mennonite University. These days, he’s still teaching – but he’s doing it at LCC International University in Lithuania.

Jerry Holsopple
Jerry Holsopple is captured on a photo expedition by one of his students at LCC International University.

Holsopple, 52, is in Lithuania for the duration of the 2009-2010 school year on a Fulbright scholarship, a grant that allows academics to engage in global intellectual pursuits. The application process is extremely competitive; Holsopple is one of just two scholars in Lithuania this year. He’s based at LCC International University, where he teaches photography, film and culture and religious art classes. He chose the country for his studies for a number of reasons.

"I chose Lithuania since I have brought EMU students here for six-week experiences and really enjoy the students here," Holsopple said via e-mail. "I also wanted to study [religious] icon painting and connected on a previous trip with a Russian Orthodox priest who agreed to teach me if I came back for a year."

Holsopple first became fascinated with icons – broadly defined as religious works of art – on a trip to Bulgaria in the 1990s. "I visited several churches and a large gallery, which was where many were put in these countries during the Soviet era, and became fascinated by them," he said.

But rather than learning about the icon-painting process from a book, Holsopple wanted to try it firsthand. He studies with the priest who had previously agreed to teach him. The man "speaks primarily Russian and Lithuanian. I take LCC students along to translate," Holsopple said. "The conversations are about more than icons, [they’re] about life and the way we approach our work."

The duo have plenty of opportunity for conversation, because the icon-painting process is lengthy. It begins by roughing the surface of a quarter-sawn piece of wood and then applying coats of gelatin and water mixtures.

"After two or three layers of this, you soak a piece of linen cloth in the gelatin water and then smooth that onto the board," Holsopple said. Then, the board is coated with about a dozen more coats of gelatin water mixed with chalk; between coats, "you sand, gradually using finer and finer sandpaper," he said. This part of the process takes four to five weeks, he said, after which the board is ready for use.

For his icon, Holsopple chose the angel Michael, drawing inspiration from other paintings for his own etching. "I start with a very old one painted by Rublev, seeking to understand how he draped the clothing," he said. "Learning to do the eyes and the hands took the most time."

When Holsopple’s drawing was complete, he transferred it to the board using carbon paper and then scratched it into the surface with an awl. After that, he began painting and applying gold leaf. All that’s left is to finish painting and then apply a clear varnish to protect the image. The final step, Holsopple said, is to have the icon blessed.

"To be a full part of the tradition, the icon will need to be blessed by a priest," he said. He plans to bring the icon back to the U.S.

In addition to icon-painting and teaching, Holsopple finds time to explore Lithuania, camera in hand. Some highlights of his trip so far include taking a ferry across the Baltic Sea to Stockholm, buying wool socks and fresh fruit from "old ladies in little markets" and photographing a Lithuanian wedding. He’ll return to Harrisonburg at the end of June, a bittersweet conclusion to a rich year.

"I will miss Lithuania, especially the people, when I return, but it will also be good to be back with my colleagues at EMU," he said. "I hope my year immersed in another tradition and type of work will allow me to evaluate in new ways my own tradition and work."