The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 26, 2010

More than a piece of art

The new icon at St. Nicholas is a part of learning and worship

By Jim Workman
Assistant Managing Editor

BECKLEY — The new icon that will be dedicated today at St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church on South Heber Street in Beckley is more than a magnificent piece of art.

“It isn’t just for art’s sake,” said the Rev. Father Samuel Haddad, pastor of St. Nicholas. “Nothing you see here in the church is what you may consider decoration. It’s there for a purpose. It’s part of our worship. They are aids to our learning. They are deep expressions of our theology.”

The icon is known as the Pantocrator, “Christ Almighty, Ruler of All,” Haddad said. “It’s a striking piece, eight feet in diameter.”

The icon will soon be raised to the center of the ceiling in the church.

“When Christ said, ‘The kingdom is at hand,’ and we believe that God is here with us,” Haddad explained. “He is not way up there (pointing to the sky). He’s here (pointing to his heart). Now we’ll look up and see the face of Christ. He is with us.

“It’s going to be very inspiring to people. To be a part of it, it lifts my heart.”

To honor his parents and his wife’s parents who have passed on, Haddad and his wife personally commissioned iconographer Matthew Garrett for the icon.

“We felt that we wanted to do something for them,” he said. “This is not for our glory. We won’t put a memorial plaque on it. When people pass, we believe that they’re not dead. They’re alive in Christ.

“Since I’ve been at St. Nicholas, we’ve seen a revitalization of our parish over these eight years. We’ve wanted to build upon what previous generations have done. Our (existing) iconography is beautiful, but there was more that could be done.

Garrett, 33, and wife Lisa came to Beckley last weekend and added the finishing touches to the icon on Monday.

“I went to a convention in Palm Springs in July of 2009,” Garrett explained. “Father Samuel and I were both in attendance and were on the same flight from there. Our plane had engine problems, so we had to land in Las Vegas and be re-directed from there. Because he was obviously an Orthodox priest, because he was dressed as one, we struck up a conversation. We had plenty of time to talk because we had a long layover.

“I told him that I was an iconographer and he told me that he had some projects that he would like to have done at his church eventually.”

“Some might say that we met accidentally,” Haddad said. “I would say providentially.”

 “About a year went past, and in May of this year he called and said, ‘We’re ready to go,’ ” Garrett recalled. “We started the ball rolling.”

Garrett explained that as an iconographer he is creating an original piece but draws inspiration from existing icons.

“It’s original, but it is based on older prototypes,” he said. “It’s very similar to what you would see in other Orthodox churches. I painted it in my studio in Boise, Idaho. I began painting in June. We worked toward this date to try to get everything done. Father Samuel had to build the frame for it. We worked to get everything to come together at once.”

Transporting the icon was a very important and delicate task.

“It was on canvas, so it was rolled up,” Garrett said. “It was in two pieces. All of the cuts are on fold lines in the clothes or on the neckline. That way, it can be pulled apart and put back together and you’re not going to see much of a seam.

“The two pieces of canvas were put into a big PVC pipe and put on the plane with us,” Garrett added. “It got a little scrutiny in the airport. They opened it up, pulled it out and swabbed it for, I guess, explosives and stuff. Just to make sure nothing was wrong with it. But it made it here safely, and we’re all very grateful.”

Though he has finished many icons in his young career, it was Garrett’s first Pantocrator.

“I’ve done a lot of other large pieces, but this was the first of this particular kind that I’ve done,” he said. “It’s special to me in that way. It’s also the first large piece that I’ve done since my wife and I got married. It was nice for her to see the process of how it comes together.

“This parish has been wonderful to work with. This experience has been a perfect example of how it should work.”

Garrett said the experience of creating the icon was a spiritual one.

“One of the things that has been interesting in painting this, every time we walked up the stairs of our home, you’d see it on the wall of our studio,” he recalled. “You see this enormous face of Christ. It’s so hard to just walk past something like that and not feel a sense of awe. Even when you’re the person that’s creating that face with brushes and paint and your hands, it’s still just amazing to walk up the stairs and see something like that.

“A lot of prayer goes into it,” Garrett added. “A lot of my own sense of reverence goes into what I’m doing. I give a lot of thought about where the icon is going to end up, how they’re going to make use of the icon. It’s a really amazing experience to be part of that.”

The legacy he left behind in Beckley was not lost on Garrett.

“One of the things that I enjoy the most is, 100, 200 years from now, most people will not remember my name,” he said. “They won’t remember the specific details of what happened. But the icon will be here. People will be using it in their worship. To me, it’s an amazing testimony to the fact that we’re a piece of the puzzle. We’re not out for glory. It’s not about what we can do individually But it is about what we can contribute to the whole of the church. I’m very glad that it will be here for a very long time.”

The visit to West Virginia also had an impact on Mrs. Garrett.

“We plan to come back,” she said. “Everyone that we’ve met has been so welcoming.  It’s such a beautiful part of the country. I’ve never been to West Virginia. The drive here — wow! I’m in awe. It’s so beautiful.”

Coming back to the church and seeing the icon installed on the ceiling will be an emotional experience, the Garretts agreed.

“Extremely,” Lisa said. “Father says that during the service, ‘We lift our hearts up to the Lord.’ Now, when we have that part of the church service, there’s going to be a visual reminder above. For us to be able to come back and have that worship service with these people, I look forward to that.

“It may be a year or so before we’ll be able to come back, but we will be back.”

Garrett has a website of his work at www.holy-icons.com

For more information about St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, visit www.orthodoxbeckley.org.

— E-mail: jworkman@register-herald.com