At the beginning of this story is my bishop, fittingly also the man who received me into the Orthodox Church when he was still a parish priest. He asked me if I could carve an “engolpion” – a large pendant worn by bishops, usually bearing an icon of The Virgin and Child. He asked for an image of the Virgin of Pochaev, a famous miracle-working icon that had been present at his consecration. And so a commission it was, not only the object, but the gesture itself, like a blessing as I embarked on this new path.
Although my first commission, I had carved several things on my own in the past, mostly in wood, which was the most obvious material to carve icons in. All the beautiful Russian carvings were done in wood. But it had always been ivory carvings, those medieval ivory panels that had mesmerized me. But these seemed so out of reach in many ways – so small, so delicate. Who would dare carve ivory today?
I had carved my first icons out of wood in 2002. In 2003 I left Canada to spend seven years in Africa with my family, in Congo and Kenya. I was doing humanitarian work with artisans, working in collaboration with Ten Thousand Villages on craft and fair trade. In 2007, while in Kenya I discovered something which changed my perspective on icon carving. In Kenya, there is a type of stone called Kisii stone. It resembles soapstone or steatite but is denser and comes in several colors, from creamy white to pink to deep yellow. There are villages in Kenya where almost all the men can be found sitting under a tree or in some makeshift shed, carving away at this stone that is mined by hand in the very hills under their feet. The carvers and carvings are so numerous, that in the dirt streets you find broken or discarded carvings embedded all along the way. The very first time I noticed this stone, I knew I had found my “ivory”. And luckily for me, in 2009, one year before the end of our time in Africa, I was finally sent to live with the Kisii stone carvers for several months. I knew I had found exactly what I had been looking for as I watched the carvers in order to understand the similarities and differences with wood carving.
In exploring this new medium I thought I was innovating somewhat. Though as I discovered, it seems steatite icons were quite common in the Byzantine world, used for all the same purposes as ivory. They were carved as independent icons, gospel and other book covers, and also miniatures. And so my joy was increased by the thought that I might play a small part in reviving this art which was basically lost since the fall of Constantinople.
In 2010, my wife and I felt our children needed to find some grounding in family and cultural identity. So we ended our time in Africa and returned to Canada, my wife 7 months pregnant with our third child. Everything was to be redone, our lives in North America had to be rebuilt and I needed to find a way to support my family. It is in this moment of intense transition, during our very first meeting since my return to Canada, the first meeting since he had been consecrated, that my beloved bishop asked me to carve for him an engolpion. I was of course curious to know if the Kisii stone could handle such detail. I created a drawing from the icon of Pochaev and traced it onto the stone. I then proceeded to carve it out using mostly exacto blades. I toiled away at the miniature as best I could, and after a few days of labour I felt I had done a decent job and brought it to my parish while my bishop was there.
Anxious of course, I unwrapped my little paper and cardboard package. My bishop’s reaction was one that I should have expected but did not. Upon encountering the icon, he crossed himself and bowed in a gesture of reverence. Now, I had seen this often and it was nothing out of the ordinary in the Orthodox Church. But this time it was different. It was different because I had just spent several days with that very object in my hands, focused very intensely upon it. I was not ready, or rather had not taken the appropriate distance to realize how this object was to participate in the life of the church or in the spiritual and ecclesiastical life of my beloved bishop. A flash of heat filled my head, and I was overwhelmed with a mixture of joy and exhilaration, filled with fear and trembling. It was not a bad fear, but rather similar to what I felt when holding my son for the first time – a feeling of smallness in realizing when one is thrust into something that is much much bigger than oneself.
In that moment I received a glimpse of clarity into why I carve icons. And since then, by the grace of God, I have been carving almost full time and have not looked back.