Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Artist creates iconography to celebrate faith
Story and photos by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Aug. 23, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Spokane artist Barbara Wagner uses ribbon to create religious icons. (IR photo)
Barbara Wagner, with her husband Randy Wagner a member of Spokane’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, is a part-time middle school music teacher. In 1979, she received a degree in Music Education from Washington State University in Pullman, and later she served as a vocalist with the U.S. Army Band for seven years.
Along the way, however, she also wandered for many years from the Catholic faith of her childhood and youth. And it wasn’t music that brought her back to the Church. It was art.
“I grew up in Moses Lake, mostly, and I was raised Catholic,” Barbara said. “I played guitar for Masses for many years in our parish church, and later I went to Washington State University and was involved with the Newman Center music. Actually, I wrote liturgical music; in fact, a couple of years ago I got a call from someone asking if they could use an Our Father I wrote 20, 25 years ago. It’s still floating around, being used out there.”
After graduation from college, Barbara Wagner returned to Moses Lake, where she taught music in an elementary school, and to her home parish. But a parish controversy over how the sanctuary of the parish church should or should not be decorated, combined with books she read attempting to debunk Catholicism, led Barbara to become alienated from the church.
In July, 1979, Barbara wed Randy Wagner, who teaches in the Music Department at Eastern Washington University, in Cheney, and is a recent convert to Catholicism.
On a tour through Italy with Randy, about eight years ago, Barbara visited church after church and was deeply affected by the art she saw. “Every inch of the walls was covered with artwork by the best artists,” she said. “We don’t do that anymore, but to me it brought to life the saints. Who are these saints, and what are their stories? These people died for Christ, and it was a whole other world that came back to me. We went to Rome for three days, and Florence for three days, and we also went to Venice. Then we went to Assisi and Ravenna, and wherever we could go. We went into every church we could find.”
Back in Spokane, Barbara began returning to the practice of her faith. She also hit on the idea of creating icon art, using ribbon instead of paint.
“I’ve always doodled, and I had the ability but I never developed it,” she said. “When I saw some holographic ribbon, it’s so bright, and it has this look of infinity and a sort of ethereal quality that I thought would go especially well with icons. I get ribbons at the dollar store, or the crafts store, especially at Christmastime when the sales are on. If I see ribbon that I think will work well, I buy it.”
For the icons she creates, Barbara Wagner uses not only holographic ribbons but other kinds of ribbons, too. “Some of it is plastic, some of it is a print on paper,” she says. “Also, I will use regular gift-wrapping ribbon. I don’t use fabric ribbons at all. Sometimes I also use pieces from photographs in magazines – eyes, hair, that sort of thing.”
The process Barbara uses to create her icons begins with a small pencil drawing. Then, freehand, she enlarges the drawing onto the surface of the material on which she will create the icon.
“First I used pieces of corrugated cardboard,” she said, “but now I use Masonite board, which is acid-free, that you can buy at hardware stores, and as I glue the pieces of ribbon down I put over that a coat of polyurethane, so the icon ends up with several coats of polyurethane. I’m also putting a coat of polyeurethane on the back side to protect it further. I glue the pieces of ribbon and other materials down with gel stick or some kind of wet glue, depending on the material. I have no idea about the longevity of these things, so I wanted to use something that will last better.”
To frame the icon, she covers it with a plate of special glass that blocks out most of the natural and artificial light rays that cause fading. “The glass is expensive,” she said, “but I did find a short-cut for the framing material itself. It can cost $600 to frame one of these, so now I get mirrors that come with marvelous frames. I take the mirror out and discard it, and use that frame, and maybe it will cost $100 for the frame and the glass.
“I’m learning as I go,” she said. “The ribbons work well for actual copies of mosaics, but if I want something to look like the icons that aren’t mosaics, like a painted icon, then I draw the face, for example, with colored pencils. I did one of the Angel Gabriel, and the face is drawn. It looks so much like a painted icon. Most people think that it’s painted, but it isn’t. That’s the only one I’ve done that way, so far.”
Barbara says that she would like to create icons that people can put in their homes. “I’d like to make icons that could be put in a prayer corner or something like that,” she says. “Maybe I can end up doing icons for churches someday. That might be kind of fun, too.”
One of Barbara Wagner’s works hangs in St. Gregorios Syrian Antiochian Church, where Father Michael Hatcher is pastor. (IR photo)
The artist has already done an icon for one church. Father Michael Hatcher, pastor of St. Gregorios Syrian Antiochian Church, happily shows visitors, on a side wall inside his near northside Spokane church, the icon that Barbara donated.
“Barbara has, on occasion, visited St. Gregorios, and she said that she had an icon and would we like to have it, and I said, ‘Oh, yeah!’” said Father Hatcher.
The icon at St. Gregorios is Barbara’s artwork depicting the Angel Gabriel, which is done in the Byzantine Greek style, said Father Hatcher. “It’s a copy of an icon in the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai,” he said. “It’s very nice, and Barbara put her own interpretation on it, of course.”
For her next project, Barbara is thinking of doing an icon of the Annunciation. She picks up a thick little book and turns to a picture of a 16th-century Italian Annunciation sculpture. “This one is a sculpture, but I like the shadows. I could do the shadows. I could use white and gray and duplicate the sculpture with these colors. I haven’t made up my mind, yet.”
Working on one of her ribbon icons is an activity that she gets lost in.
“My husband says that when I’m working on one of these, he thinks he should just put a slot under the door and slide my food in. It’s something that I sort of have to do now. I think God wants me to do it. I never did it before. Why now? I want to do it because it brought mystery back into my life, and it brought miracles back into my life – they are there to be found if you want to look.”