When Sarah Conley, who teaches weekly iconography workshops at Saint Anthony Catholic Church, was asked to join a group of women from the parish to make icons, she said she jumped at the opportunity because “I wanted to get to know people in the church.”
That was four years ago, and she had only been living in Hillsdale for a year. What she first saw as a way to get to know the community has become a serious pursuit for Conley.
“I just became enthralled,” she said.
Since learning the basics from Laura Smith, another member at Saint Anthony’s, she said she has taken four workshops from experts in iconography or color theory, including Mother Olympia of Holy Dormition Monastery, an Orthodox community in Rives Junction, Michigan.
Now, for the last year, Conley has shared her passion with the parish and other locals interested in learning the process of iconography. Workshops for adults are every Monday from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Youth classes, open for children aged 7 and older, will begin March 1. There are limited places in the class, as Conley says she tries to keep the youth class at 10 participants.
The children’s class will often take 8 to 10 weeks to complete the project. Because the process is meditative and might be tedious for some, Conley said,
“I’m completely blown away by how receptive youth are to it. Some have said it’s the highlight of their week.”
Kelly Cole, also a parishioner at St. Anthony’s, said in an email that her children have greatly enjoyed taking classes for almost two years, with her 7‑year-old son just starting in the fall.
“They have all benefited from it as a unique form of prayer and as a way of meditating on a particular name/image of Jesus or the Blessed Mother or a particular saint,” she said. “They also have been pleased to be able to give their icons as gifts to family and friends.”
Called “writing an icon,” the name of the process reflects that creating a religious icon is much more than just painting a picture. Every detail has symbolic meaning, and the painter layers multiple thin pigments, with every stroke a form of prayer.
“They are to be taken seriously,” Conley said. “I’m very open to anyone who is attracted to the idea if it’s something they’re interested in.”
Once a year, Saint Anthony’s also hosts a week-long iconography retreat, organized by Heather Tritchka, which will take place this summer. Smith and Conley said that, since the retreat teaches the traditional method with egg tempera and other traditional tools, it’s more intense. Everyone works on the same icon. Conley uses acrylics during the weekly classes, allowing her to teach color theory as well. Members of the adult class pick an icon of their own choosing. She said she appreciated the freedom to mix colors with even subtle differences, which egg tempera does not allow for.
Though Conley played down her role as instructor during the adult class, saying “we’re basically an encouragement to each other,” Smith said that she was a wonderful teacher.
Conley said she would be willing to speak with anyone interested in learning more about iconography, or are interested in joining. Her contact information can be found on the Saint Anthony website.
“There’s a deep communal aspect of doing this together,” Smith said. “You’re copying original images a lot of the time. It’s not about you — It’s a means of prayer.”