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Prayer and paint: Icon class teaches the ancient tradition of spirituality in holy images

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People gathered around plastic folding tables at St. Peter's Episcopal Church for three days over the weekend and learned to pray by painting through the centuries-old tradition of icon art.

The icon retreat, hosted at the church by Brenda Fox, featured classes on painting, otherwise known as "writing," the icons.

"Icons are theology in picture form," Fox said. "They are created in prayer to be used in prayer."

The students learned how to design and paint a version of "Our Lady of Tenderness," a depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. The tradition of icons is prominent in the Eastern rite churches — a group of Eastern Christian churches — and draws from a time when many followers were illiterate. The icons that covered churches were a way to teach the stories of the Bible, Fox said.

Fox led her students through how to paint the image, as well as how to pray while they were painting. Reciting a prayer with each brushstroke is an integral part of the icon creation process, Fox said. The room where the class was happening was often filled with a meditative silence while the students worked.

Kelsey Wofford said she grew up seeing icons and was always interested in them but she did not have much information. The class was an opportunity to learn the art, as well as the history. She was surprised to learn there was so much spirituality in the creation of the images.

"There's such a process to how you paint them," she said. "There's prayer with each of the steps, so there's prayer layered in."

The "Jesus Prayer" was the main thing the participants recited, reminding them of the Christian tradition of redeemed sin.

Laura Willett, an art teacher at Baylor School, learned about the class from a former student. The idea of invoking God with each movement of the brush spoke to her since she has long been interested in how spirituality and art go together, she said.

Most of the art classes she attends are very technical — such as learning painting styles and brush movements — but the icon class was much more conceptual, she said.

"Anybody who is searching for a profound connection to God would benefit greatly from this," Willett said.

Fox said she has been painting icons for years and recently went full-time in leading classes. The Arizona resident and former art therapist travels across the country leading workshops like the one held in Chattanooga this weekend.

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