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Artist creates something beautiful for God by painting icons

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Local artist Laura Clerici is a full-time Byzantine iconographer who intertwines the art of painting sacred icons and reflective listening as a volunteer chaplain into a spiritual discipline.

Clerici, a long-time Catholic and parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria, learned to paint icons while working as consul general at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the 1990s. When she was younger, she painted, sang and played piano. She stopped creating art for many years until she took a class on painting traditional icons in Russia.

Traditional iconography is an art form that developed during the late classical period of the Roman Empire around the fourth century. Icons are venerated images of Jesus Christ or other holy figures painted on specially treated hardwood boards covered in fabric and at least seven layers of gesso — a white mixture of chalk and marble dust. An image is transferred to the board and incised into the gesso, and gold leaf is applied. Egg tempura paint is then applied in six to eight transparent layers before being finished with a coating of varnish.

“When I wanted to start painting again, it was hard to find someone who would teach icon painting to a foreigner, but I found a man willing to teach me and I took weekly classes,” Clerici said. “When I returned to the U.S., I attended more workshops and have continued to take classes all over the country.”

In 2006, Clerici retired from her job at the State Department and was able to focus on painting full-time. She also trained for nine months to become a hospital chaplain at INOVA Alexandria Hospital, taking intensive classes in clinical pastoral education and doing her practical work. Hospital chaplains are usually ordained, but Alexandria has an interfaith chaplaincy that includes lay ministers who provide emotional and spiritual support for patients and families.

Clerici’s work as an iconographer and chaplain complement each other. “The iconography gives me the attentive spirit to talk to families in chaplaincy,” she said. “Being an artist can be very solitary, and that is why I am a chaplain. It gives me the compassion I need to paint the icons in a very real way. It is a synergistic thing for me.” 

Before she enters a room to meet with a patient or their family, she says a prayer and asks God to use her however He needs to in order to help them. While painting an icon — which, depending on the size, can take anywhere from 20 to 100 hours over several months — she prays the whole time. “It is a spiritual exercise — if you treat it as such — and prayer centers you and gives you a different outlook,” she says of her process. “It is like doing a kind of contemplative prayer, such as what some monks do.”

“The Resurrection,” is one of the 33 icons on display at Gallery Underground through April 28.

Clerici will display more than 30 of her icons in a solo exhibit, “Divine Light,” which runs through April 28 at the Gallery Underground in Crystal City. She also will give several talks on aspects of iconography such as the geometry, use of color and symbolism.

Describing her passion for painting icons, Clerici said, “Mother Teresa said, ‘Do something beautiful for God,’” and that is what I try to do. “I love creating something beautiful, and the fact that I do so while in prayer, is a bonus.”

If you go
Gallery Underground, 2100 Crystal Dr., Arlington, April 3-28
Opening reception: April 7, 5-8 p.m.; Artist talks: April 14, 4:15 p.m.; April 22, noon — with a demonstration of gilding; April 27, 4:15 p.m.



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017