Originally created 04/17/99

Pigments of the imagination: Snogren creates religious art



WASHINGTON -- Tap into John Snogren's "Heavenly Visions" Web site and watch the images of an ancient, religious art form blossom quietly on the monitor: the Prophet Elias, in moss-green robes, or Saint Catherine, in an exquisitely detailed dress of rich red and gold. The Madonna's care-worn, sad yet serene face, enveloped in a deep blue mantle, her eyes speaking of forbearance, of a quiet meditativeness. These icons invite contemplation as they dwell quietly in their small corner of cyberspace.

And through this turn-of-the-millennium tool, Snogren hopes to introduce others to a timeless art form he practices today.

Tall and slight, Snogren, 40, works out of his book-filled Hyattsville, Md., home. At night, he works as a waiter. By day, he is an artist creating religious images in a basement studio filled with works in progress, painting on wood panels with paint made according to an ancient recipe, the pictures subsequently transferred to a Web site (www.heavenlyvisions.com).

"I take a little bit of egg yolk and water, mix it together, and then I take pure pigment ... that's the same pigment that's been used for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, because it's from the same places where the artists of the 13th century got their pigments.

"The funny thing is, you're mixing egg yolk and water, you're taking animal skin glue, you're mixing with powders," Snogren continued. "You do these things that haven't changed for hundreds of years, and then you go to the computer, and you see it on the Internet!"

Born and reared as a Methodist in Onaway, a small town near the northern tip of Michigan, Snogren came to this calling after converting to the Orthodox faith (which celebrates Easter this Sunday) and joining the Holy Orthodox Church in North America.

"I'm not doing this just because I like the style," said Snogren, who holds a bachelor's degree from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. During his time in New York he was torn between the "wild and crazy" life of an artist and the religious precepts he'd been taught in his youth. At one point he visited his brother, who had become a monk at the Orthodox Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, Mass.

"I was surrounded by these gorgeous, huge icons. I saw people dressed in black, unshaven, unbathed, monastics, and I heard this beautiful, simple chant," Snogren said. "All of a sudden, you saw why you had the raging passions ... how one can have artist fire in his veins and love beauty so much and still want to be pure, and in the icon I found the answer to that struggle."

In the last seven or eight years he began to focus on painting icons; traditionally, representations of sacred personages, doctrines or events. The aim is to be not realistic but symbolic, to express the church's teachings.

But the computer has helped Snogren translate the icon's lofty religious mysticism into down-to-earth cash.

"Almost all my sales are stimulated from the Web site," said Snogren, whose work is priced from $800 to $8,000. "... It's amazing to sit at home and all of the sudden you get an e-mail from Tokyo or Israel or Russia, or a little island off the tip of South America, all these weird places."

Snogren also uses his computer to create promotional material and, at times, to work out ideas before setting brush to surface. "I might say, okay, I like this 7th-century reproduction of Christ, then I might take some illumination pattern from the 13th century, using it as a decorative border because it fits with a certain idea that this icon is about," Snogren said. "I lay something out, and I would then just work on certain proportions. I would mix, using the computer to size, to reshape, to scale, actually to see it in advance."

While "Heavenly Visions" has boosted commissions, Snogren's waiter job pays the bills. "I always work in gourmet restaurants, because I have another love: cooking," he said.

But painting is his real vocation. "A true icon really is about religion, and it's about a vision that's been unchanged through the centuries. And I'm one of these little voices sitting in a basement somewhere ... another little voice that's been passed on from artist to artist to artist to artist for 2,000 years saying, 'There is a God.' ... The icons don't change, because it's that same truth. And that's what really attracted me."

That's also what repels critics who contend that iconographers, bound to a certain form and certain rules, paint only the same unchanging, flat, stiff images.

"Everything is alike to the uninitiated," noted Gary Vikan, director of Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery, a specialist in Byzantine and medieval art. The purpose of the icon painter is not experimentation or risk-taking but rather "to perpetuate and not to perturb or deflect the tradition."

"He becomes a channel," Vikan said, "that is greater than what he can do by himself."

It is an idea that Snogren believes art historians and scholars in the past have made little effort to understand. "The Western paintings are full of drama and clouds and giant angels and lightning. The Byzantine icon is quiet and humble, and more simple because it's the quietness of the still voice of God speaking through: Obey me. Love me. Worship me."

But he believes the tide might be turning, with scholars taking a second look at the form. Interest also has been heightened in recent years through various traveling exhibitions, as well as shows related to the Russian czars such as the "Glory of Byzantium" exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1997.

"There's been an enormous growing interest in icon painting," said Anne Odom, chief curator at Washington's Hillwood Museum & Gardens, which has a substantial collection. "It goes back 10 years. Part of it in the last decade is due to the opening up of Russia."

In Washington, Dumbarton Oaks has a small but choice selection of icons available for public viewing, Vikan said. A handful can also be seen at the National Gallery of Art. Far more, about 75, will be seen next spring when Hillwood, currently under renovation, reopens with its collection of 18th- and 19th-century icons. And the Walters will open a gallery devoted to Russian, Byzantine and Ethiopian icons in 2001.

Snogren hopes to have his own impact within the strictured form.

"I want to do something that will show hints of the fact that I'm using the foil of this contemporary culture to react to this culture, but using the language and the faith and the vision of someone who lived 1,500 years ago," he said.