published Saturday, September 7th, 2013, updated Sept. 7th, 2013 at 7:26 p.m.

Cooper: Icons: It's all in the journey

SPECIAL EVENTS AT ST. PAUL'S

All open to public; free except where noted; for details, call 266-8195.

* Sunday, 5-8 p.m.: Opening night reception with artist Ludmila Pawlowska.

* Sept. 18, 6:30 p.m.: Lecture, "Transformative Vision: Praying With Icons."

* Sept. 28, 10 a.m.-noon: Icon art day for children.

* Sept. 29, 4 p.m.: St. Paul's choir vespers with the icons.

* Sept. 29, 5:30-7:30 p.m.: Evening of icons for youth.

* Oct. 3, 6-9 p.m.: Viewing of the exhibit with music and candlelight.

* Oct. 5, 11 a.m.: Lecture, "Writing an Icon: Exploring the Process."

* Oct. 12, 7 p.m.: Choral concert: "Sacred Mysteries" (admission charge).

* Oct. 16, 6:30 p.m.: Lecture, "The Maria Group: Dissidence and Religion Under Brezhnev."

* Oct. 26, 11 a.m.: Lecture, "Icons in a One-Storey Universe."

* Nov. 1, 7-10 p.m.: Viewing of the exhibit with music, candlelight and compline service.

* Nov. 3, 4 p.m.: St. Paul's choir music and lessons for All Saints Day.

The 4-foot high, blue-and-gold sculpture in the narthex — or entry hall — at St. Paul's Episcopal Church could easily depict a dozen people dancing, their arms on each other's shoulders.

But it happens to be a crown of thorns like the one placed on Christ prior to his crucifixion.

The image is in the eye of the beholder.

And it's all about the journey.

For the next two months, the downtown church will host the exhibit "Icons in Transformation," a collection of about 150 pieces by Ludmila Pawlowska, a Russian-born, contemporary abstract artist now living in Sweden. The art is her response to the sudden loss of her mother and the continuation of her personal spiritual journey.

Don't let the title fool you. This is not a collection of stuffy, theology-driven paintings and sculptures the average person -- even the average religious person -- can't relate to. Instead, it's an exhibit in which Pawlowska encourages people to find themselves.

"It's a journey of seeing, a journey of searching," she says. "That's who we are. We're on the way to find ourselves, our spirituality."

The search for Pawlowska began after her mother's sudden death when on a visit to see her in Sweden. A child prodigy who gained fame with her floral and landscape work, the artist returned to her native Russia after the loss and found new inspiration from icons -- traditional religious images, usually on wood -- in the country's Orthodox churches.

"Something happened," she says. The icons offered "this message, this spiritual power," the desire to "capture the light in my way." Her work and her journey were forever changed.

The collection, which she says has been "growing and growing and growing," has been exhibited in cathedrals and museums throughout Europe and now has been seen by more than 150,000 people in the United States.

St. Paul's rector, the Rev. Donald Fishburne, had seen it in Kansas City and worked to bring it to Chattanooga.

The exhibit is different at each stop, Pawlowska says, because of which pieces are hung, where they're hung and how they're lighted. In addition, she says, each stop usually has several new pieces.

Included with the exhibit are around a dozen traditional icons, loaned from an Orthodox seminary, to offer a contrast -- and display the inspiration -- for her work.

"I'm not an icon painter," Pawlowska says. Traditional icons "have strict rules. They all look the same."

Not hers. Her work, she says, is part of the journey from the past to the future.

The pieces are displayed on stands or hung on walls of the nave, the narthex, the adjacent halls and the Exum Gallery at St. Paul's. They're even across the street in Second Presbyterian Church.

They are big, small and somewhere in between. They are done in acrylic, oil and numerous other mediums. They incorporate a variety of objects from coins to bullets, from fabric to dried plants, from copper to barbed wire.

Many have eyes -- the window of the face of someone "looking at you" who "loves you" and "accepts you."

Their colors mean something. Gold symbolizes the glory of heaven, the permanence of God. Red is the symbol of life, the life Christ gave through the shedding of his blood. Blue is the color of humanity.

Most important of all, Pawlowska says, they are open for interpretation.

"You decide," she says. "They are open for you."

There is no cost to view the exhibit. Regular exhibit hours are Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon.

The art is even for sale, with a portion of the proceeds going to the ministries of the churches in which they are exhibited.

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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