Artist interprets icons as a ‘longing for the divine’

Artist Ludmila Pawlowska is seen at work. Photo/Andrezej Tyszko.

By Solange De Santis

Worshipers and visitors to the main sanctuary, community center and chapel at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Darien, Conn. are encountering a major, 100-piece art exhibit by Ludmila Pawlowska, an artist with Ukrainian roots who is dedicating 60% of any sales to Ukrainian refugee relief.

Pawlowska’s work is displayed in the “Icons in Transformation” exhibit at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Darien, Conn. Photo/Solange De Santis

The exhibit, titled “Icons in Transformation,” showcases Pawlowska’s work across a range of genres, including figurative and abstract. She works in many materials, including wood, fabric, paper, steel, copper, plywood and found objects.

The show is part of Saint Luke’s “Beauty of Holiness” program, which started at Easter 2022 and is focused on “the power of art to invite us into deeper lives of prayer,” as the Rev. Ryan Fleenor, Saint Luke’s rector, said at a group discussion with Pawlowska. The recording may be accessed here.

At the group discussion, Pawlowska said that her art is an attempt to answer the question, “can artists create believable images in which longing for the divine is visible?”

Pawlowska was born in Kazakhstan in 1964. Her mother is from Ukraine and Pawlowska spent many summers visiting her grandmother near Zapororzhe, Ukraine. Her grandparents and parents were dissidents during the Soviet era and Pawlowska has said she considers herself a child of the Cold War. When she was 15, she went to Moscow to study art, but eventually left the Soviet Union. She and her family have lived in Sweden for 30 years.  

Pawlowska’s work is seen along with descriptive text. Photo/Solange De Santis

Although she did not have a religious upbringing, she chose to be baptized into the Orthodox Church at the age of 18, an illegal act under Soviet rule. She began creating her artistic interpretation of icons after the sudden death of her mother during a visit to Pawlowska’s home in Sweden 25 years ago.

“My spiritual journey started at that time. Art saved me. I visited different monasteries and icons became a source of inspiration to me of unconditional love. Icons in the eastern church is not a form of art, but a form of prayer. Spiritual power comes from the icon itself. You look through the icon and icons are always looking at you,” Pawlowska told the Saint Luke’s group.

An example of a traditional icon is part of the show – an image of “The Virgin Hodegetria – Our Lady of Kazan,” created in the 13th century in Constantinople. Photo/Solange De Santis

In the eastern church, the traditional icon is a portrait of Christ, the Virgin Mary or a saint, usually painted on wood, displayed in a church as a devotional object.

Pawlowska’s interpretations cover a range of sizes, colors and materials. “Each piece has its own story. You can just stand peacefully [while viewing them] and try and listen to your heart. It’s a journey of seeing and of searching. I try to take on this journey all visitors and transform them,” she told the discussion group.

Beneficiaries of any sales of Pawlowska’s art from the Saint Luke’s show will be the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and CARE International.

The exhibit is on display through August 7 at Saint Luke’s. It is scheduled to be displayed from Aug. 21 through Oct. 30 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in York, Pa., and from Nov. 20 through Jan. 29, 2023 at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waynesboro, Pa., and was previously installed at Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral, Cincinnati, from March 1 to May 22.

Left, Pawlowska describes her painting to a visitor. Photo/Andrezej Tyszko. Right, her painting “Revelation” is mixed media on panel. Photo/Maggie Domont