Re-discovering faith through art: Chris Czainski exhibits her icons in new Autumn exhibition ‘By the Hand of…’

Artist Chris Czainski will present her exhibition ‘By the Hand of… Icons, traditional and Contemporary’ from the 4th September at Bradford Cathedral. We spoke to her about what people can expect from the exhibition and how her work with iconography came about.

Can you tell us about your history as an artist?
I used to be a teacher but I always used art in my work. I also worked in a prison with people with behavioural problems and used my art to encourage them. When I left teaching I became a studio artist full-time. I started to make icons about ten years ago, but that was part of my practice. For the last few years I’ve gone down the traditional iconography route. I’ve been getting some training and painting icons using all the traditional techniques.

What was it that attracted you to iconography?
We have a cottage in Staithes on the east coast. Staithes has a history of tragedy at sea with fisherman that goes back to generation; it was quite notorious for it. I felt that it would be nice to make something that could be supportive, and helpful to people who were fisherman or the family of fisherman. I started making St. Brendon icons, who is the patron saint of navigators, and people really enjoyed them. I had them displayed at Staithes Gallery and from there I did research into other icons and started making all sorts, such as the Star of the Sea, and then onto Christ and Madonna icons, and it’s gone on from there.

We go quite regularly to a monastery near Lancaster for retreats and once, whilst there, I was chatting to a priest about my iconography and he said how I should go down the traditional route, which I thought no too. But before I knew where I was I was indeed heading down the traditional route and booking a course, so it was obviously the right path for me.

You were initially self-taught; did this help you establish your own distinct style?
Yes, definitely. I just followed my nose and did things that were close to my heart. When I look back over my work it’s been very spiritual which I hadn’t realised at the time. I became a Christian in my twenties, and then lost my faith in my forties; I didn’t go to church anymore and I was looking in other directions. This iconography came about at this time, and it was an expression of my faith without me knowing it. What had happened, as I’d been producing the icons, my faith had grown back again, so it’s been an interesting process of re-finding my faith as well as having a different route with my art.

You work in two different styles with your icons?
That’s correct. My earlier work is contemporary and I used a lot of things that you wouldn’t normally expect to find in icons, such as beads, fabric and padding. All their hands and faces were traditionally painted but their clothes, frames and surrounds would be done in a different way. For instance St. Christopher is surrounded by a map and he is stitched, and there will be little things added to them, whereas my religious icons now are absolutely traditional, from the way the board is prepared through to the final touches.

Do you have a preference to styles or is that how you’ve evolved as an artist?
It’s how I’ve evolved really. When you go down the traditional route you tend to start with the Byzantine icons, but I did a few Celtic ones as well; I mixed my styles. Because the way you paint icons, because you tend to follow patterns in the canon of icons, they’ll have a similar look, but you can’t help but impose your own style on them. A whole group of people could do the same icon but they’d all look different.

The exhibition begins in September. What can people expect from it when they visit?
There will be a mixture of both styles which is quite interesting. I’m going to exhibit the icons around the Cathedral and there will also be a display about how I got to those points with both the techniques used in the making of the icons.

Creating these icons helped your re-discover your faith; do you think it will have an impact on other people who come to see your exhibition?
I did an exhibition in St. Bury’s Church in Cornwall, asked by the vicar for a feast day. I was so staggered by the impact it had, I decided to give up all my other art and just focus on icons, because of the power of them. Cornwall has a population of Wiccans, and even some of them came to the exhibition and commented to the vicar about the incredible power in the room. It made me realise that it’s not just you, but that the Holy Spirit is at work here.

You mention that you have used art in prison; did that help people in those situations connect with art?
Yes, it helped them in lots of ways. That was, again, a big turning point in my life. I hadn’t realised how powerful art was to people with problems and how they could work out lots of things, and find peace in the work that they did. It was amazing.

You have also done film-making, print and sculpture in the past. Do you still explore that or just focus on the icons?
At the moment I am completely focussed on the icons, but my husband and I do film-making together, and for Staithes Festival we always do an event of some description, and we’ll carry on doing that. We do work together such as painting murals or rooms, and we have hopefully some of that coming up. We do all sorts, really, but my main focus is on the icons as I want to move on with them – it’s all consuming! It’s not just the painting of the images: it’s the history; it’s the symbolism; it’s the spiritual aspects of it. It affects your whole life, as to do iconography you have to get yourself in the right spiritual state of mind, with a prayer.

You’re based in Hebden Bridge, Sowerby Bridge and Staithes which are lovely places to live and work in; have they been inspirations?
Definitely. Hebden Bridge is a very spiritual place in all sorts of ways, so it’s a lovely place to explore spirituality. That has had a big impact on me. When I went full-time into painting and sculpture I did do an art course at Todmorden Community College, which was quite famous at the time for how good quality it was, and that really helpful. It was very different but anything else available, and that was where I first started painting my icons.

The exhibition was displayed earlier this year at Blackburn Cathedral. How was that received?
It went down very well. It was nice to see that people enjoyed it, and it was a good position there too.

There is also an opportunity to meet you as an artist and take part in an icon painting workshop; what will people get out of those?
At the meet the artist I’ll generally talk about myself and how I’ve got to where I am, and about my work, and the individual pieces, as each has their own story. For the workshop, because the time is too short to paint a full icon, I’m going to give a general introduction to iconography and then an introduction to painting to using the technique of egg tempera.

Is that a medium that many people won’t have an experience in?
It’s quite unusual! It’s not one that people use generally, but it’s one you always use when creating icons. It’s been used from the 8th or 9th century. The first icons were painted in wax and pigment, but changed over to egg tempera afterwards, so it’s a really ancient technique. The icons you see, from the 9th century, have still got the brilliance!

If you could sum up about what people can expect from your exhibition, what would you say?
I’m hoping people will come and discover something for themselves about iconography and its relevance to us today, as both an art form and its spirituality for Christians. I hope the icons themselves will speak to people when they see them. Last year at the Staithes Festival I did an installation and called it A Sacred Space and displayed the icons in the living room of our house, and lit candles and played music in the room to create a sacred space. We reckon about a thousand people came to our house over that weekend and it was incredible how people came into that room and met with the icons. Some people were so captivated by the spirit of the icons and this kind of peace that comes out of them.

That must be a great experience as an artist to see people reacting like that to your work?
It is, and is absolutely lovely.

From Wednesday 4th September to Sunday 20th October, all day. Meet the artist: Wednesday 11th September, 6:30 – 8:30pm Icon Painting Workshop: Friday 20th September, 10am – 4pm Book your places at bradfordcathedral.eventbrite.com

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