Thoughts: Icons and Strange Light

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Last Friday, the woman I love and I took an artist’s date and went to Clinton, Mass to visit the Russian Icon Museum. It is a place we have been before, but there is something about these hand-painted panels (typically painted on wood panels) that have always sung to me.

I actually have a Russian Icon in my house, and the discovery that both the woman I love and I have an affinity for icons was one of our first connecting points.

It’s an odd little museum. Outside it is a small industrial building, the sort of thing you see in New England towns. Perhaps a small factory or warehouse from the turn of the century (1900’s, not 2,000’s). Inside it is remarkably modern and airy, with lighting that changes color every few minutes, from reddish to blue-ish to greenish to purplish and back.

Personally, I find the ever-changing light colors a distraction. The lighting changes the way the rooms, and more importantly, the icons appear. Being someone who likes to study, not just look at, paintings that touch me, the shift in color makes it hard for me to fully see the artwork. I am constantly trying to see past the hues of the lights to the colors of the paintings.

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There is likely a reason for the colors. Perhaps the colors of the light replicate colors from the stained glass windows of churches where these icons may have hung, and the lights are designed to let us see the paintings in context.

At times I found myself looking closely at this icon or that icon. At other times, I stood back and looked at them, noting how they changed as the light changed.

It is, after all, all about the light.

Most artists will tell you that. So will most photographers. Light changes how we see everything. And the light changes throughout the day, taking any landscape or vignette and always, subtly shifting how it’s seen, how it’s experienced, how we end up feeling.

I am a strong believer (and brain science is starting to catch up and verify this common belief.) that how we choose to see things in our life, the light, and color we choose to paint the events in our lives, change how our live actually are, just as light on a landscape changes how we see the landscape itself. The same section of farms and mountains can be alternately washed out, harsh, warm, inviting, hopeful – all according to the light.

Which is right? Which is true? The dark? The hopeful? All of them? Yeah, you can get all philosophic on this one – generations of philosophers have filled stacks of books wrestling that puppy down, or at least trying to.

I downloaded some of the pictures I took at the museum this morning. Each icon was bleached with the color of the moment. I spent some time in software trying to bring the image to the way I believed they would look in uncolored light, trying to wrestle them down to how I saw them. That’s what you see in the top image of an early 1700’s icon.

And we do the same with our words and thoughts in real life. We choose the colors of the life we live. We choose what light to see things in. It’s not that there are not things in our life that suck and things in our life that make us rejoice, but even at the extremes, we have a choice of the crayons we use, the light we apply, and in the end, how we see things.

I’ve wrestled with that at times. Bouts of depression paint a pall on how I see things. Some days the depression light is a faint one, easy to “photoshop” out with positive thoughts and actions. At times, it’s a black fog, with everything seeming negative and ugly. On those days, it takes more work.

I’ll do the work, just as I did the work on the top picture. I want to choose how I see things, I don’t want an artificial pall, or the rest of the world, or you or anyone else to choose how I see. I did that too long.

Photoshop is easy. Carving away the artificial light we all carry around with us is hard. But it’s worth it. I like the way I choose to see, even it takes some work.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

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