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Ancient method

Riderwood artist creates iconography learned in Moscow

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October 13th, 2016
Delphia Dirks has displayed her ornate iconography in Riderwood’s resident art shows.

Delphia Dirks has displayed her ornate iconography in Riderwood’s resident art shows.

Delphia Dirks has always counted art as one of her hobbies. Over the years, she’s tried her hand at ceramics, oil painting, and pottery. But when her husband’s work brought the family to Moscow, Russia, Delphia became interested in iconography, an ancient form of ornate painting that depicts religious images. 

“I became very interested in the sacred art that was in the museums and churches in Moscow,” Delphia says. “I was able to take a class with a Russian iconographer on the weekends.”

When Delphia returned to the U.S., she enrolled in iconography workshops and began to hone her craft. 

Keeping up her craft

Over the years, she has created a number of icons for herself as well as on commission. She also does exhibitions from time to time. 

Some of her work is even displayed in churches. She was commissioned to create an altar piece and large side icons of the nativity and the baptism of Christ for St. Hugh’s Church in Greenbelt, Md. She also created life-size icons of Peter and Paul for Christ the King Church in Tulsa, Okla.

The process of creating icons is complex and detailed. The  subjects are essentially reproductions of earlier icons or images of biblical events or saints. Icons of saints are not portraits; they seek to show the spirit of one transfigured. Icons provide visual depictions of sacred scripture and must be scripturally accurate as to content, although iconographers’ styles do vary somewhat.

Delphia says she begins by creating a very precise design. Icons are typically created on a wood panel, covered with several layers of gesso. The precise design is transferred, and Delphia uses the ancient method of egg tempera, using powdered pigments tempered with egg yolk. Pigments can include rare stone powders such as malachite, cinnabar, and lapis lazuli.  

The paints are then applied to the design in many thin layers, starting with the darkest colors, and with subsequent, lighter layers creating the form of people, architecture, and landscapes to create a distinct look. Delphia finishes the elaborate pieces of iconography with some strategically placed 22-carat gold, especially in halos or on the figure’s clothing.

“The method I use is the ancient method,” Delphia says.

Capturing essence

Depending on how detailed the design is, creating an icon can take quite a long time. The most challenging aspect, Delphia says, is trying to capture the spiritual glory of religious figures from many centuries ago. 

“These are people who have passed on, so we try to capture the essence of this person who lived life according to Christ’s teachings,” Delphia says.

Delphia and her husband Harlan moved to Riderwood from Washington, D.C., about three years ago. They have a two-bedroom apartment home at Riderwood. Delphia works on her iconography in the bright sunroom. 

Living at Riderwood, Delphia is in the good company of many other artists. For the last several years, residents have organized a multiday summer art show to showcase the work of the talented artists living at the community.

“It’s a very good exhibition,” Delphia says. “There are many artists living at Riderwood and a lot of different kinds of artwork are shown.”

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