Bringing Art to a Sacred Place

Donna Fischer

donna fischer | the artist next door | june 2016

Nancy Gezella is an artist who is helping to illuminate the beauty of an old form of art known as icons. In doing so, she claims that her art is not about herself anymore, but it is an expression meant to give others a glimpse of the spiritual possibilities they seek.

When one thinks of icons one thinks of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where these creations feature images of the saints, Christ, His crucifixion, or the Virgin Mary. Often crafted in wood, but sometimes made with marble, ivory or other media, icons are considered sacred because they bring the viewer to the sacred; it's a visual form of prayer. Icons are not painted, but written and come with a rigid set of rules for assembly, though modern interpretations may not heed every traditional detail to the letter. And the different parts of the icon have spiritual relevance. So why did Gezella, who lives in De Pere with her husband, find herself enthralled with this challenging form of art? It sounds like the art form chose her and not the other way around.

Armed with degrees in interior and mechanical design, Gezella worked for many years at KI in Green Bay. She began to explore her love of art by taking classes and eventually put her efforts into art on a full-time basis.

“My work before was always very abstract and contemporary,” explains Gezella. “It was more of a design element … It was very much structural in a design-sense of a way. No deep meaning behind it.”

Then, an opportunity arose to create a work of art in reaction to the events of 9/11. “Now I knew exactly what I wanted to do; it was really my expression of faith and how I saw God in the aftermath of September 11th. It was really neat to finally do a piece that I could really put myself into.”

Despite being able to express herself through the project, she returned to the old ways of doing things, at least for a while. But the experience had left an impression. “It started something in me and for the next couple of years there was just this desire in me to express my faith in my work. Maybe a calling.”

Despite the urge, Gezella put off making a full-time commitment to her art and instead tried to juggle her other work with her craft. Eventually, she could do so no more. “I was really worried about telling my husband because this was income for us. When I finally got around to telling him I didn't get two sentences out of my mouth and he said, 'Nancy, I know. It's what you're supposed to do.'”

It was another art class that marked a big turning point in Gezella's artistic path. The class was on icons. “I thought, 'Oh, they're religious, maybe they'll inspire me.' … And I just fell in love with it. So from that point on I've been doing icons. I still do a lot of the other work, too. But that's where I really am directed to go. I'm pulling further away from mixed media. I would eventually like to be more focused on icons. And not necessarily the traditional ones, but I'd also like to write my own and bring in my own style to that.”

Though Gezella is impressed with the public's growing appreciation for this art form, she admits that they wouldn't fit in at a juried art show. “Art shows will not consider icons a valid piece of art. With icons we believe that the image belongs to God, so it's okay for you to look at another icon and reproduce it your own way if you want to. But in the art world they think that's more like copying. Even though you're not printing it and you're painting it yourself in your own style, they still feel that the image isn't yours. And technically we don't think it is; we think it belongs to God. We don't sign icons.”

Interestingly, Gezella says that the strictest of iconographers would not accept her as one of their own either, leaving her caught between the zone of the artist and that of the iconographer, but that doesn't bother her. “That's not the point. I've gone through that whole art scene and now it's not about that … It's truly about doing it for God. He's the one who gave me the gift; He's the one that allows me to use it.”

A major project for Gezella this year involves the installation of three icons for St. Agnes Catholic Church in Green Bay. About to be installed in the church in June, these remarkable pieces are striking in appearance and depict Christ, The Virgin Mary and St. Agnes. However, Gezella had her patience and her fortitude tested with this project when all three boards had to be replaced because the originals developed significant cracks. Gezella had already put 159 hours into the project when she discovered the flaws. She felt stunned by the setback. “It's the first time I was physically sick over my work. Never before had I felt like that. I thought I was going to throw up for almost two days. That was devastating. I'd had things break before and it never bothered me. But this one was tough to take because I knew I was going to have a hard time getting them done on time.”

The pastor of St. Agnes, Father Patrick Beno, notes that art plays an important role in a church. “Art is integral and, in my view, essential to being human. I am no art scholar but once I began to learn even just a little, just some of the basic aspects of 'reading' sacred art, I realized how gratifying it is to know art and to point out to others what art means to the environment of a church. So it feeds the brain. But even more importantly is it feeds the soul. God created us with senses and the senses feed the imagination. The imagination is part of the soul. This is the best reason to have art in the church. It raises both mind and soul and so it assists our faith and prayer.”

For Gezella, a Catholic, her art has gone beyond a form of self-expression and now truly mirrors her spiritual life. “It's so interesting how my faith journey progressed and how the art progressed and how the two are moving together. The other work was great and I loved it. But this is so wonderful because it's not about you. It's not mine and there's something wonderful about that. Most people probably think I'm crazy but for me, there's something really wonderful about that.”

Now, with the icon project for St. Agnes completed, Gezella looks forward to doing more projects where her faith can shine through. “I have all kinds of ideas of things I'd like to do. I'd love to do small portraits of the doctors of the Church. And then read their writings and do a piece inspired by their writings.”

Donna Fischer is an avid fan of music, film and art. When she's not writing on these subjects you'll find her gardening or snowshoeing around Green Bay.

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