Last year I had the opportunity to interview Christina Saj, a painter fascinated with geometric abstraction, a preference for modernism, and an acute awareness of historical context. Early in her career, she mastered the technique of Byzantine icon painting, and now uses those formal and structural elements as a springboard for paintings in which symbols are recognized and reinvented, reflecting the character of the time in which they have been created. R: Looking at some of your early paintings, done with gold leaf and egg tempera, I am struck by the historical connection--they could have been placed in a church hundreds of years ago without a problem. What first drew you to icons? CJ: The beginning is easy. My ethnic background is Ukrainian. I'm Byzantine Catholic, so icons were something I was exposed to from the beginning. As my artistic curiosities expanded, it seemed quite natural to explore the processes by which they were made. That said, egg tempera isn't a very popular method. It's a slow, labor intensive process requiring dedication and careful preparation. You make your own paint, so there is an extra layer of preparation to creating the art. In this day and age, most people buy their oils off the shelf and have never made them. So they aren't accustomed with working with pure pigments, making gesso, etc. These were normal practices a few hundred years ago. When I was in college, I had the privilege to study with a noted Ukrainian iconographer, Petro Cholodny the Younger, who was then in his 80's. His father too had been an iconographer back in Ukraine. I was his last student. He had painted iconostasis in six churches and before the war taught in academia in Warsaw Poland. He had very traditional approaches to teaching, which gave balance to contemporary influences in my art career in college at Sarah Lawrence. R: It sounds like you went through college focusing on two completely different styles of art. Was there ever a conflict between the two or did they naturally merge into the artistic sensibility you have today? CJ: In the beginning they do inevitably feel like disparate styles or projects. I did feel pulled in different directions. But with time and careful observation, you realize there are indeed real similarities. Icons are inherently abstract. They are built out of pieces, so the approach is actually very similar to the way we approach more process oriented work. With time, inevitably opposing interests bleed into one another allowing for a synthesis. It seems quite natural in hindsight that there is lots of crossover and hopefully from that you evolve a unique and singular vision. R: I'm intrigued by the idea of building a painting out of pieces. You've said "One is not supposed to look at sacred pictures but rather look through them, ascending mentally and spiritually from the image to its inspiration." Is the use of stylized pieces part of what imbues a canvas with that sort of transcendent quality? CJ: I do hope so. If these contemporary icons are to function, they have to make it possible for you to recognize your subject matter while being abstract enough to give the user room to reach the place they are seeking to find. My choice to work with abstraction is two-fold. Historically, icons were painted to reflect a world other than our own. Artists were not encouraged to pursue realism. Even after the Renaissance when man's ability to portray physical spaces changes, artists working in orthodox traditions were discouraged from pursuing realism. Icons are painted technically--simple forms are first laid in, working from dark to light (the opposite of classical drawing techniques) and details are worked in only after the abstract composition is in place. This composition of colored shapes afforded the artist a chance to explore compositions purely for their pleasing design. Symmetry, balance, rhythm and color are carefully considered and adjusted before any detail work is laid in. Contemporary artists do just this! So having started a career in the 20th century, I couldn't ignore this development and the progress of design over hundreds of years. Even if I chose not to apply the new techniques, I had been exposed to them the influences were there. In contemporary life we are bombarded with images, logos, signage, and design in a variety of media and ways that historically people had not. So much has evolved and is available which was out of the question just a few hundred years ago. I could not ignore this. It seemed only natural to try to create work which is smart, informed can resonate today but is imbued with the beauty, tradition and the richness of all that came before it. It is easy today to embrace technology and trends that abandon or break with the past. I feel strongly that studying the past can help us create work with deeper meaning and more resonance. So to specifically address your question, yes, I think abstraction helps. If the aim is to embrace a larger community and draw people to spiritual life--abstraction offers us multiple entry points, richer and more nuanced meaning which i think is easier for today's audience to digest. They need not be versed in ancient traditions to join in. Once they do, the work is steeped in religious tradition which brings an extra layer of recognition. It may encourage them to pursue a deeper understanding. I feel that people need to be engaged and allowed to grow and bring their own experience to looking at art. Thus, art has to be informed by today. R: Thank you Christina, for taking the time to chat with Ruminate Magazine! Christina Saj’s contemporary interpretations of icons as well as traditional images can be seen at www.christinasaj.com. She holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.F.A. from Bard College and currently lives and works in New Jersey.
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Bohdan I. Shulakewych
February 17, 2017
Having seen a number of Christina’s works in the past, those depictions have shown balance (as in nature) vivid colours and dedication to her spirituality. With this picture of Christ,I can sense also the spirituality of our Saviour in her work. It is a unique marriage of ancient Byzantic iconography with modernism… impressive.