Although icons are far removed from her Mennonite roots, Winnipeg artist Rachel Baerg finds herself fascinated by the history -- and mystery -- of religious images, and she knows she's not alone.
"I think people are desperately looking for images that have meaning and that transcend earthly tasks," says the art educator at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
"I think people are ready to tap into broader religious traditions, and we're seeking guidance from other traditions."
Baerg's interest in icons of Christian saints, traditionally used in Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic and other Eastern-rite churches, prompted her to pull together an exhibit of traditional iconography, as well as contemporary interpretations from five Winnipeg artists.
Featuring 65 pieces, including 18 historic icons, the exhibit, titled Embracing the i-kon, opens at Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery on Friday, Sept. 20, and runs until Nov. 9.
"As a Mennonite, this is not my tradition, not my area of expertise either," says Baerg, 43, who teaches art history at Canadian Mennonite University, located on the same Shaftesbury Boulevard campus as the gallery.
"But I think it's important to learn and start a dialogue and a conversation."
That's a conversation artist Michael Boss has been having with himself ever since his Mennonite-born mother died in 1996 and he inherited family documents and photographs. Raised Roman Catholic, and later Anglican, Boss was baptized in the Ukrainian Catholic tradition of his father, and grew up with holy images in his household.
For the last 15 or so years, Boss has incorporated angels and saints in his own artwork, as well as re-interpreting traditional iconography.
"It's a way for me to meditate and a focus for me when I work," explains the head of the WAG studio, who has six pieces in the exhibit.
"It's a devotional practice for me."
He's convinced iconography can offer the same sort of meditative benefits across the denominations, both as an aid to worship and as an ancient form of religious art.
"The feeling (is) that maybe as Protestants they're missing an aspect of worship that could be embraced. Maybe it's not as nefarious as we used to think it was."
For Winnipeg iconographer Vera Senchuk, icons are simply sacred images that are venerated, not worshipped, both at home and in the church.
"Because (the image is) still, it calms you down and can help you with prayer," explains the Ukrainian Orthodox woman, who writes icons from a third-floor studio in her North End home.
Following a long list of prescribed steps and working with traditional materials, iconographers describe their work as "writing" the icon because the icons do not exalt the painter's talent.
"God is the focal point, but this (an icon) is a vehicle. It can help you focus," says Senchuk, who authored the recently released My Icon Book, which explains the traditions of iconography. The book will be on sale at the gallery during the exhibit.
She's thrilled to have some of her icons included in the exhibit, and anticipates explaining her tradition of religious art at an evening workshop at the gallery on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m.
"As an iconographer, the joyful thing is to spread icons around the world, so I'm happy for the opportunity."
The exhibit also features work by Winnipeg artists Seth Woodyard, Christian Worthington, Michele Sarna and gallery director Ray Dirks.
For Baerg, curating the exhibit gives her the chance to share her enthusiasm for visual art in the church, as well as providing another way of seeing the Christian story.
"(Icons) teach, they've like visual theology," she says. "It's really theology in colour."