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Heavenly Masterpieces by Young Artists
By Ann Augherton
Although much student art is displayed on refrigerators at home, these lucky young people found their creations exhibited at a prestigious Baltimore art museum.

Q U I C K S C A N

The Main Attraction
Merging Faith and Art
Building Confidence

 

Photo of Chelsea Tarleton, Grade 7, St. Michael's School, by Paul Haring

A RECENT ICON EXHIBIT at The Walters Art Museum in downtown Baltimore drew students from three Catholic-school communities: a rural southern Maryland school, an urban blue-collar school and a home-schooling cooperative. Although the museum was also showcasing 14th-century Russian icons, the group of 260 students who visited last fall came to see their own sacred icons.

This pet project has become a decade-long collaboration of two sisters, Carol Mackie Morris and Margaret Mackie Zellhofer (artcrossings@comcast.net). The students produce icons and crosses as part of their curriculum. This is the first year the artwork has been exhibited at The Walters Art Museum (www.thewalters.org). From there, it moved on to other locations, such as schools and a library.

“Child’s View Into Heaven: Sacred Icons,” featuring 160 hand-painted icons and 100 metal-work crosses created by students at the three schools, took center stage in the museum’s Sculpture Court last November 19 until January 1. Just yards away, “Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory of Medieval Novgorod” featured hundreds of historical items, including 35 icons that offered a glimpse into the medieval Russian city of Veliky Novgorod.

The Main Attraction

The museum was more animated than usual for the opening of the student exhibit. Any typical guests, who might quietly ponder the masterpieces with unexpressive faces, were outnumbered by the excited students, who were eager to see their creations on display.

The program began as choirs from each of the schools took to the auditorium stage to perform. One little girl, wearing a red velvet dress, struggled to hold her much-too-big song binder as she looked around the audience. Occasionally, she forgot to sing. But she was the first to bow and then curtsy to the rousing applause.

When Dr. Gary Vikan, director of The Walters Art Museum, greeted the artists, he explained that the auditorium had never held that many young people at one time. “There is something about this time of year,” Vikan said. “There is more energy per square foot, per square ounce, per child.” Vikan thanked the Mackie sisters for “tapping into the talents of the entire room.”

The students divided into groups and toured various parts of the museum. But the main attraction was definitely their own creations. The Sculpture Court filled with a flurry of excitement as the students searched the exhibit walls to locate their own works. “Here’s mine!” one shouted, and the crowd shifted to that side.

In what looked like an art-deco exhibit, row upon row of images of the same saint stared across the aisle at row upon row of metal-work crosses. Upon closer look, variations could be found.

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Merging Faith and Art

“In iconography, an icon is referred to as a window into heaven,” says Carol Mackie Morris, art teacher at St. Michael’s School in rural Ridge, Maryland. These icons represent a child’s view into heaven, she says, adding that the creations are sacred, since all the pieces were blessed during school Masses.

The inspiration for the program was an iconography class that Morris and her mother took 12 years ago. Morris turned it into a way to connect faith and art in the classroom. Although she doesn’t teach religion, she does “promote our faith through art.”

Carol’s sister, Margaret Mackie Zellhofer, is also an art teacher. Four years ago, Zellhofer brought the iconography program to Summit Academy, the home-schooling cooperative where she works. This year she began the program at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Baltimore, where she substitutes. With nearly 500 students participating this year, the schools held a lottery to pare down the number of items to be exhibited.

Morris tells her students that the combination of Church history and art illustrates the original purpose of icons: to enrich spiritual life, especially prior to the days of print. The students learn the history of the particular saint who is chosen. In addition, they learn the different aspects of patron saints, such as the patron of painters, St. Luke.

The icon process, as Morris outlines it, begins with a piece of three-quarter-inch plywood. A base coat is applied and a design, called a “cartoon,” is traced on the surface. The students use regular house paint. When that is finished, a protective coat is applied.

The process is the same for all the icons. But Morris says that the different technique each artist uses (called a “fingerprint”) is evident through slight variations in style or the color of paint that is selected.

Building Confidence

Emily Gage is a sixth-grader at St. Michael’s who can’t decide if she would rather show her artistry through being a baker or an artist. She says her icon of St. Luke was hard work, but she took her time doing it “so it would turn out better.” She spent five weeks creating her icon. “Most artists have to take time with their artwork,” she explains.

Emily chose bright and dark colors to illustrate the opposite sides of good and evil, respectively. Regarding her creation, this confident young artist says, “It turned out really well.”

Philip Barlow, a sixth-grader in the Art Club at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, said that working on his icon of St. Nicholas was fun. Since he wants to be an architect someday, Philip thinks this experience might come in handy.

Even though Anna Zellhofer’s mother and her aunt lead the icon program, the Mount Carmel eighth-grader still spent a couple of weeks working on her image of Our Lady of Sorrows in order to get the black veil just right. “It was kind of fun and interesting to learn the original story of icon painting,” she says. Anna adds that having the icons blessed and displayed was “cool.”

Msgr. Maurice O’Connell, pastor and school administrator at St. Michael’s, said he was grateful to the Mackie sisters, who “give their talent in service of Catholic school students.” He praised the program for helping the students “to come to know, through art, the love of our Father.”


Ann M. Augherton is the managing editor of the Arlington Catholic Herald diocesan newspaper in Arlington, Virginia.


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