How An Artist Found Her Purpose Through This Divine Encounter

A mysterious meeting prompted her to create faith-filled artwork designed to inspire others to reconnect with God.

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Posted in , Mar 25, 2022

Photo credit: Christine Simoneau Hales

It was the summer of 1994, and my husband, Mick, and I were being shown around the French convent of Saint-Georges-des-Gardes by Sister Jean de la Croix. Mick was a photographer specializing in garden and architectural photography, and he was working on a new book, Monastic Gardens. This convent in western France was one of many we’d visited in the past weeks, so Mick could take photos of the grounds.

I was admiring Saint-Georges-des-Gardes’ stark and unassuming beauty—the bare walls, the simple arrangements of fresh wildflowers on a table in the hallway, the polished, dark gray stone floors—when Sister Jean pulled me aside.

“Your husband tells me you’re an artist from New York,” she said, a glimmer in her eye.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m a painter.”

Even as I said the words, they felt hollow. When I had first picked up a paintbrush as a child, it felt as if I was channeling something bigger than myself onto the canvas. I’d chased that feeling all the way through art school. Then it vanished. I’d hit a creative rut. I’d painted everything under the sun, from landscapes to abstract shapes, trying to snap myself out of it, but none of it spoke to me. I was beginning to think it was time to give up painting.

I’d even started attending graduate school for art therapy in an attempt to shift careers, but so far I still felt I was just going through the motions. I missed that profound and purposeful feeling I’d felt when I started painting. Somehow I’d lost it along the way, and I was left yearning for it.

“If you’re an artist, then you must see Sister Myriam,” the nun said decisively, bringing my attention back to the present. “She is our resident iconographer. She’ll want to meet with you.”

An iconographer? I wasn’t sure what that meant. I vaguely remembered studying icons in art school. The traditional portraits of saints and other religious figures were painted using a technique with ancient origins. I’d certainly never heard of a contemporary iconographer. But I didn’t want to seem impolite after Sister Jean’s hospitality, so I agreed to come back the next day to meet with Sister Myriam.

Saint Michael and The Dragon by
Christine Hales

Her studio was a small room in the basement of the convent. Sister Myriam was a tiny, hunched old woman. She beckoned me inside. As I looked around, she pulled out a shoebox. She sat at a wooden table and motioned for me to sit next to her, and I did.

Inside the box were hand-painted postcards, each featuring a different icon. They were absolutely stunning, vibrantly colored and filled with intricate details despite their diminutive size. She took them out one by one, gently passing them to me and describing the painting and her artistic process. She didn’t speak English, process. and I didn’t speak much French. Yet incredibly, somehow, we were able to communicate. She told me that prayer was a key part of the iconography process, that each icon took hours to create and that the artist spent that time communing with God, reflecting on his inspiration. As she spoke, a feeling overcame me. I’m not sure how to describe it, other than that I felt God’s presence in the room, nudging me toward a realization that this was what I’d been searching for. These icons were everything I’d been reaching for as an artist up to this point. They required the utmost technique, skill, symbolism, meaning. It was a way to capture the spiritual—the ephemeral—in an image. It was faith made tangible.

I spent almost four hours in that studio. I emerged a different person. My husband even noticed it when I returned to our hotel room.

“What happened?” Mick asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know—you look different.”

I felt different.

When the trip was over and we returned to the States, I immediately met with my graduate advisor to change my focus of study. I was going to be an iconographer.

Over the past three decades, I’ve studied the Russian style of icon painting, along with the Greek, English, Italian and Coptic styles. I’ve learned from them all and used the lessons they’ve taught me to inform my own style. My work has been commissioned by churches and individuals and displayed across the world. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction, knowing that my icons help keep this sacred art form alive for others to experience.

For me, being an iconographer is all about using the knowledge of the past masters to bring that spirit—that faith—into the modern era. Hopefully, my art will inspire others to reconnect with God, the ultimate source of creativity, and affirm their true purpose. Just like my timely encounter with Sister Myriam and her icons did for me.

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