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Our Lady inspires Fairfax woman to pick up painting

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Gemma Allen likened the feeling to flying in an airplane, watching the clouds come closer and closer, and then being enveloped in the white puffs of air. That’s how totally absorbed she was by the idea of painting after seeing an icon of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows. A fellow secular Carmelite, Veronica Royal, emailed a photo of the image to her. As Allen stared at the woman with seven swords piercing her heart, she decided she wanted to pick up a brush herself. 

“When I saw that, my heart was in there,” said Allen. “It pulled me into her heart.” She said a prayer to Mary and called Royal, an iconography teacher, the following weekend. In the few years since, the Korean-American grandmother of 13 has taken up not only Byzantine iconography but oriental-style painting, too. 


Gemma Allen, a parishioner of St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax, paints in her basement studio. ZOEY MARAIST | CATHOLIC HERALD


Allen was born and raised in South Korea and was baptized at age 5 after her mother converted from Buddhism to Catholicism. She met her husband while working on Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek. “After work I would always go to chapel to pray and all he could see was the back of me,” said Allen. “He said to himself, ‘Dear Jesus, help me find a lady who prays like the lady in front of me.’ Much later he figured it all out.” 

The couple married September 24, 1977, and shortly afterward moved to the United States. 

They have four children: Jerome, John, James and Theresa. By 1980, they were living in Northern Virginia and attending St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax. Allen loves living here, but it wasn’t an easy transition. “It’s difficult to cope with a completely different culture,” she said. “I used to go to church a lot and just sit there and cry. If I didn’t have religion, especially Catholicism, I don’t think I couldn't have survived here.” 

Attending Mass and events at St. Paul Chung Church, the Korean parish in Fairfax, helped keep her connected to her homeland. After taking up iconography, she also took a class on oriental-style painting through St. Paul Chung’s senior classes. Her brother is a professional painter, so she was surrounded by his art, some of which hangs in her home today. 

Allen tries to paint every day. “It’s like prayer life,” she said. “If you skip prayer, you easily forget.” A bedroom in her basement has become her studio. Around the room are bottles of paint, cups filled with different size paintbrushes and the boards she makes herself that become the canvases for her art. Tacked to the wall are printed images of icons, pencil sketches, and a tiger drawn in the minhwa, or Korean folk art, style.


Some of her icons hang throughout her house while others are still in the basement, waiting to be given to a priest friend and a religious sister whom she’s known since childhood. While many typical icons are painted in dark, rich colors, she’s likes to make hers a little lighter, bordering on pastel. She bases her style off iconographer Daniel Neculae. “His technique is very colorful and bright, and that’s what I like,” she said. “It’s very striking and makes you stay awake. Gives you a little something to think about that. That’s what the color brings you.”

In the same way the Our Lady of Seven Sorrows icon impacted her, Allen wants her work to grab people and draw them into the biblical stories she portrays in paint. “Like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the seven arrows, it makes you think how sorrowful she was when she watched her son die,” said Allen.  “It makes you think, oh, maybe that’s how she felt.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019