Church says God's grace flows through iconographers' brushes

Publication - Bever Valley LIFETIMES section, 03.09.2003

In his basement, under 100-watt bulbs, Andrew Bobik Jr. follows centuries-old rules to create artwork considered sacred. Bobik works full time as an iconographer. Using acrylic paints, he crafts icons - those somewhat abstract-looking paintings of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints that adorn Eastern churches. "If done correctly, they are rather beautiful," Bobik, 37, said. The Center Township resident has provided icons for churches in Gibsonia, Uniontown, Colorado and Morgantown, W.Va., an impressive feat for a man who, until five years ago, had little artistic experience outside of sketching his favorite comic book characters.

Bobik's work, and the efforts of other iconographers, receives extra notice this time of year. In churches that stem from the Byzantine tradition, such as Greek, Ukrainian, Serbian and Russian Orthodox, the first Sunday of Lent celebrates the veneration of icons. For the majority of Christian churches, that celebration occurs today. But most Orthodox churches following the Byzantine tradition will celebrate the first Sunday of Lent next week. An iconographer such as Bobik is not considered an artist, but rather an instrument through which the grace of God flows to render the image. The iconographer who paints - or, in church language, "writes" - an icon doesn't sign the finished work because it is not considered his, but is instead the work of God.

"It is part of our faith," said Mary Ann Ilov, a member of St. George Byzantine Catholic Church in Aliquippa, which will celebrate the rededication of the church on May 4. That ceremony will include a blessing of the church's new iconostasis, a screen decorated with icons that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church. Bobik, who attends that church, also builds icon screens and altars. His garage is filled with two unfinished altars bound for a Uniontown church. In his basement sit a dozen or so icons, several of which are mounted on birch plywood. "I can paint on either canvas or directly on wood," he said.

Bobik often needs up to 30 hours to finish an icon. Following rules for icons dating to at least the 8th century, he layers the shades of paint, so each overlapping layer gets lighter the closer it moves to the center of the icon. A saint's sleeve, for instance, might contain five shades of blue, with the innermost shade being the lightest and the outermost shade the darkest. He keeps his intricately nuanced paints stored in small jars bearing taped labels such as "pine green," "carbon black" and "dark skin." After painting, he applies a polyurethane varnish. Icon images are created purposely out of scale. For instance, buildings often look smaller than people. And the central figure in the painting might tower over others standing next to him.

"If you look at icons, they are not portraits. They are abstracts. The rule is icons are not supposed to look like the person. You don't pray to the icon, they are there as a reminder," Bobik said. Before moving to Beaver County so his wife would be closer to her job with American Airlines, Bobik belonged to a Monroeville church, where the priest prodded him into crafting a few icons for the church. "He wanted the work done, and he wanted it done cheaply," Bobik recalled. It didn't matter to the priest that Bobik lacked an artistic background. Undaunted, Bobik dug up a few reference books and paintbrushes, and began teaching himself the ancient craft. He still keeps his first icon, a rather crude effort that proves how far he has come in just five years.

Today, his single-figure icons typically sell for between $140 to $190. A former grocery store manager, Bobik attended Robert Morris College in his 30s, graduating five years ago with a business degree. But just before receiving his diploma, he realized he didn't want to go into business. "I said, 'What am I going to do with this degree?' I'm not an office person. I like to build and paint things," he said. And so he opened an in-home iconography business called AIcons. As part of his niche business, he recently repainted the interior of an Ohio church. "I just did it so it looked a little more eastern," he said.

Amid his 10-hour workdays, he also hopes to begin teaching iconography classes. Any interested church can contact him at aicon965@aol.com. Scott Tady can be reached online at stady@timesonline.com.

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