Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel
Fr. Olsen describes technique for icons, using his work as an example. “I agreed to do this as a form of prayer with my parishioners,” the priest says. 

Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel

Fr. Olsen describes technique for icons, using his work as an example. “I agreed to do this as a form of prayer with my parishioners,” the priest says. 

DEXTER — In a small town in the hill country southeast of Eugene, a group gathers regularly to make Jesus incarnate in wood and paint. 

On a recent night, with rain pounding on the roof of the parish hall, 18 students pray before picking up paintbrushes. They lean tenderly over partly-done icons of Christ and get to work, monastic music playing softly. 

“We want a little more interior quiet as we do this,” says Father Ken Olsen, administrator of St. Michael Church in Oakridge and St. Henry Mission here. Father Olsen is the iconography mentor for the novices, who are mostly parishioners with a few visitors. 

The students are nervous. Will they make a mistake portraying the Son of God? Father Olsen comforts them with calm sensibility. His remedy — simply paint over what you don’t like. Iconography, he explains, is like anything else: a journey with crooked paths. 

“You don’t just sit down to make a nice piece of artwork,” says Ryan Moser, who grew up a member of St. Henry and is still one of the 75 worshipers here, despite having moved a half-hour’s drive away to Eugene. “You are sitting down to make something that tells a story or something that is a spiritual expression of who you are or a spiritual expression of what the icon is trying to say.” 

Moser, 39, joined the icon class to refresh his faith. He thought it would last for a few weeks. But the gatherings have been going for 10 months and students are still working on the same icon. It’s the deliberate pace that makes the spiritual content possible, Moser says. 

“If it’s something you start and just finish right away, it is a job or a project to be done,” he explains. “But if you let it stretch over a long time, that’s when it allows you to breathe and relax and to understand and to explore and to learn.” 

Father Olsen, ordained for the Archdiocese of Portland in 1973, presides in both the Roman and Byzantine rites of the Catholic Church. Eastern Catholic rites, like their cousins in the Orthodox Church, have an ancient tradition of icons. 

The 70-year-old priest served for decades in Ukrainian rite churches in British Columbia. He has been a chaplain at Sacred Heart Medical Center for 17 years and recently accepted responsibility for the two small-town churches.  

“The parish asked me, ‘Show us how to write an icon,’” Father Olsen says. “I told them, ‘I can’t do that. I’m not that good. I’m not a teacher.’ But they said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’” 

He has taken a handful of iconography classes from a Russian master in New York and teaches in the ancient way — egg-based paint mixed with natural pigments. The technique goes back to the time of Christ.  

“I agreed to do this as a form of prayer with my parishioners,” the priest says. “It is a wonderful thing to do and a wonderful way to pray.”  

St. John Paul II said the church breathes with two lungs, the East and the West. St. Henry is a Latin-rite parish, but now is more aware of Byzantine traditions than most, getting a fuller dose of spiritual air. 

As parishioners work on the icons, they try to let the Holy Spirit flow through them. Because of that conviction, iconography has its own language; one does not paint or create an icon, one writes it. That retains the sense of Scripture and of being a tool used by divine influence.

Iconography has become more popular in the Christian west, including in Oregon. Resurrection Parish in Tualatin has new large icons and the Trappist Abbey has added icons in recent years. But the Western church has long used images of Jesus and saints. Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Czestochowa, Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Cross of San Damiano are considered icons of a sort. 

Teresa Danovich, a member of Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church in Springfield, has been attending the Dexter classes despite 23 years of experience writing icons. She appreciates the community and says there is always something to learn. 

Danovich, who works for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, grew up a Ruthenian Catholic, another of the Eastern rites. As a girl, she found icons severe. Now they are a major part of her spiritual life. She takes the icons she makes to a regular ecumenical prayer service. Most students give away the icons they make. 

Julie Morin, a member of St. Henry Parish here for 24 years, says no artistic ability is needed to write icons — just faith and the belief that a person can figure things out.