The Heart Behind the Icon

St. Michael the Archangel
Written through the hand of Laurie Muench

Interview with Laurie Muench, one of our more advanced iconographers.

Tell us about yourself:

I am a member and parish administrator at St. Barnabas Episcopal church in McMinnville.  My husband is the church organist and I have two grown sons.  I’ve been an Episcopalian for five years – I started the job even before deciding to be baptized into the episcopal church.  Before that, I was a Mormon. 

Our parish has been supportive of my iconography studies, always giving me time off to attend the summer classes.  St. Barnabas offers a scholarship, the Homestreet Fund, to support women who are furthering their education.  They chose me as one of the scholarship recipients and sponsored one of my summer intensive sessions.  I am going to write and donate an icon to the parish – we’re still in the process of deciding which one. 

Before iconography, my artistic work was in graphics using an ipad.  It’s so different from painting because it’s easy to instantly delete mistakes on an ipad!  You can’t do that with paint.  The last time I painted was over 20 years ago, and my work back then wasn’t great!  I was familiar with working and mixing colors, but I didn’t know the name of the pigments as they’re used in iconography. 

Today when life is so stressful, iconography is how I relax.  I have my little painting corner set up in our dining room.  I sit there, while my husband practices the organ, and painting takes away the stress. 

What made you decide to try writing an icon?

I had always loved how icons looked, but in my Mormon community they were considered idolatry and were not encouraged.  After leaving the Mormon church, I became keenly interested in icons and very much wanted to write one.   I attended an art exhibit at Trinity Episcopal cathedral where the institute had a table displaying icons and information.  My husband saw it and pulled me over – right then I signed up for a class!  My first class was the icon of the child Jesus: Jesus Emmanuel.  That was in the summer of 2017. 

Since then, I’ve taken a class every season, including the advanced class this past August. 

My first experience with the institute was one of the week-long intensive sessions.  That was a great beginning because I was completely immersed – it’s good to learn the basics this way because you don’t forget over time, as can happen when classes are just once a week. 


What would you like people to know about the Trinity Iconography community and classes?  What advice can you give someone who is interested in iconography?

Anyone who wants to, should try it!  Some join without any art experience and they do great.  It’s such a learning experience and everybody’s icon ends up so beautiful.  They all turn out really well.  Everyone is so friendly and supportive.  I always tell new classmates how I’ve made many mistakes, it’s a class to learn, so mistakes are ok!  Fr Jon has so much knowledge and Ania has been a wonderful addition to the program.

It’s important for people to know that they don’t need a background in art!  The Iconography Institute trains anyone of a Christian denomination.  It’s open to everyone who wants to learn. 


How has writing an icon (or icons) changed you, what have you discovered?

During my first icon, there were points of frustration and tears because I didn’t think it would turn out well.  My image of the young Jesus looked terrible at one early point!  It was such a relief when He finally did turn out.  Still, sometimes things don’t turn out exactly the way you want.  I tend to fuss and make it worse.  I am a perfectionist and not a patient person and I’m learning to relax and let it go.
 
Learning to write icons has given me a higher appreciation for how much work is put into them and the spiritual process behind it.  It is a constant process of trying to put yourself into a spiritual place while you’re working on the icon.  I think it’s increased my own spirituality.  I’m a busy person but this is the very last thing I would ever give up.  I will always make room for my iconography classes.  I need that in my life!


Which icon has been your greatest challenge? 

My most difficult icon was the Archangel Michael posted here.  It is an intricate icon with beautiful wings, flowing robes, and I chose gold for the frame and background.  Gold is so difficult for me!  (We use 24 karat gold leaf.)  It got smeared and mushed.  The gold is terrible, I still need to redo it.  The truth is I still haven’t finished this icon.  All but the gold is finished. 


Which icon has been your favorite? 

Honestly, that same Archangel Michael!  It’s such a lovely icon and I need to finish it.  Another favorite is the Theotokos of the Sign.  Both are complicated and beautiful. 

This summer I wrote my “pandemic icon” on my own outside of class: The Lady of Vladimir.  It’s a tender icon.  Baby Jesus has His hand wrapped around Mary’s neck and He’s looking at her with adoration, such a loving look.  She looks at the viewer and her expression is both sad and compassionate.  It’s beautiful.  I loved doing that for the pandemic.  There are many people who pray to Mary for support during this time so it seemed like the perfect subject.