Drawing the Divine

Debra Korluka practices the centuries-old art of iconography.

Growing up in the Russian Orthodox Church, Stillwater’s Debra Korluka was drawn to the beauty of icons from an early age. “I was raised with these images,” she says. “Icons have always been a part of my life.”

A largely self-taught artist, Korluka earned a degree in biology and medical technology with a minor in art history, working part time at Regions Hospital for nearly 20 years before making a living creating art full time. After marrying into the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Korluka had the opportunity to study the restoration of icons at the University of Fine Arts in Kyiv, Ukraine. Later, she studied under Russian iconographer Alexander Chashkin in Moscow.

For much of the past 25 years, Korluka has worked as an artist and teacher; her work has been commissioned by churches from Minnesota to Spain, including the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. “Icons are a tool for education and witness,” Korluka says. “I have nurtured relationships in many other denominations interested in this art.”

In Orthodox faiths, icons are not merely paintings of religious subjects, but holy images meant to inspire contemplation of the divine. Saints are often represented with highly stylized countenances, clothing, and halos that emphasize their holiness and the content of their religious messages. The process of creating, or “writing,” icons is itself a form of religious study, with each step involving centuries-old techniques that are imbued with spiritual significance.

First, a wooden panel with an embedded linen cloth is covered with many layers of gesso, a white pigment that represents the emptiness from which God created the universe. Next, the image to be painted is transferred to the panel and its lines incised into the gesso. Then, the iconographer carefully applies layer after layer of transparent color to the panel, slowly building the depth and vibrancy that characterize Orthodox icons. Gold leaf is often applied to the halos surrounding the subjects’ heads to highlight their closeness to God.

This painstaking process is intended not only to create a beautiful painting, but also to provide an opportunity for the iconographer to practice patience and discipline while engaging in silent contemplation of what is being created.