Interview with Iconographer Baker Galloway
SERAPHIM O'KEEFE ON MARCH 31, 2022
Mother of God “Of the Sign” (2020), 30″ x 40''
Editor’s Note: Following upon Aidan Hart’s recent post about applications currently being accepted for the 3-year Icon Painting Programme taught by him, we present an interview with a 2019 graduate of that program, Baker Galloway, conducted by Seraphim O’Keefe on behalf of the OAJ.
Baker Galloway is an American graduate of the 3-year Icon Painting Course offered by the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts (London, UK). The course is taught in Shrewsbury, UK by Aidan Hart, who has contributed prolifically to the field of iconography (writing, teaching, painting, carving, mosaics, liturgical furnishings) over the past 30+ years in the UK and internationally. Baker participated in the 2016-2019 course with ten fellow students, graduating in October 2019.
Baker is a dear friend, and I am excited about the work he is doing. For years, he and I have shared our experiences and ideas about art and life. In March of 2019, he invited me along on one of his trips to England, to meet Aidan and to see the iconography class in action. My encounter left a profound impression on me, and now it is a privilege for me to introduce Baker to you, and to share his story.
Seraphim: Baker, before we go into detail about your experience studying in England, let us know a bit about your background, your education and your involvement in the arts.
Baker: Hi Seraphim, thanks so much for this opportunity to talk about myself and my art. (Two of my favorite subjects!) Hmm, let’s see. I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. In the middle of my teenage years my family moved to Austin, Texas, where I still live now.
From childhood I always got a lot of satisfaction from drawing and sometimes sharing my drawings with others. As an emotionally repressed introvert I suppose it was a safe way to put my emotions out there in public and invite a connection with other people. I have never been much of a doodler, but rather see visual art as a medium of communication between persons. In my process, a seed of an idea is conceived first, and then I work to give it life by expressing it as best I can. I dabbled in philosophy and fiction writing when I attended the University of Texas at Austin, and eventually majored in Radio, TV & Film. But by the time I graduated, I had found myself ill-suited to these vocations. I did take one art class before graduating from UT, and stumbled into a creative voice of my own as a painter. I exercised this newly-realized, unexpected gift of my creative voice in delight for about 8 years.
During that time I painted people in a cartoon-like simplified style. Usually I worked on large scale paintings that had a formal simplicity which belied their psychological complexity. I loved to explore themes of shame, fear, delight, simple-heartedness, and struggle. I think the motivation behind this phase of my work as an artist was to put the spotlight on vulnerability. In doing so, I invited the viewer into a moment in which my humanity and theirs was cherished.
Just Trying to Get By (2007), tempera on watercolor board, 30″ x 80″
Two Little Red Sox (2005), acrylic on Canvas,
48″ x 48″Happy Birthday (2005), acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 36″
Untitled [for Cal] (2009), acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 72″
This period of my life 8 with several other seasons: the beginnings of my career working part-time in architecture, also my exploration of whether I might become a monastic, and then the early years of my marriage. I had found a creative voice and discovered that I had things I needed to say (visually), and it was a great joy to deliver these paintings into the world. I am tempted to look back on that as a golden time, though I know it was actually full of insecurity, dysfunction, and immaturity. I don’t really wish to go back in time.
In any case, my artistic inspiration eventually dried up in a significant way, combined with life circumstances that also limited the possibilities of producing much art. This closing of the door on contemporary art coincided with meeting the exceptional iconographer Vladimir Grygorenko, who had been a student of Fr. Zenon Teodor before moving from Ukraine to Dallas, Texas. Vladimir was very gracious to me and gave me my foundational instruction in iconography at his studio in Dallas. With him I began learning composition, anatomy drawing, drapery in iconography, how to work with pigments and egg tempera paint, and how to make icon boards. I will always be indebted to Vladimir for this training he generously shared with me, which spanned about two years’ time.
In 2011 my ex-wife and I welcomed our son into the world; and for a couple years I did no painting at all, but occasionally late at night made icon drawings with crayons, colored pencils, or conté crayons. In 2013 I had the great opportunity to attend a 5-day icon painting course taught by Aidan Hart in Shropshire, UK, and afterwards visit the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex. During this trip I was given a sufficient view of the work that remained ahead of me (in my training) to decide that iconography was indeed a vocation I wished to pour myself into. Up to this point I still suffered from a great deal of angst and indecision.
My angst was in part due to the sacred calling of the icon: that one must not rush into it with an agenda or ambition. Iconography is like a sacrament for the eyes, and to be good iconographers we must be humble servants. I struggled with this because I felt very much that I had a lot to say, and I quite liked my own creative voice. I did not know whether I could relinquish control of my artistic life to the Church.
Thankfully, during this season I passed through the canyon of doubts and came out into the valley of hope. Working in correspondence with Aidan over the next several years I completed a few icons. In 2016 I applied to the Icon Painting Course at the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts, which is a three-year course taught by Aidan. The notion of undertaking such training was supported and made possible by my family and community. My application interview took place just hours after the birth of my youngest daughter, after which I was accepted into the program, which began in October 2016.
Icon Painting Course students at work in our classroom at the Trinity Centre, Meole Brace, Shropshire
Seraphim: Was the 5-day course with Aidan the turning point for your doubts? Could you describe Aidan’s character as a teacher?
Baker: On your first question, it’s hard to say, but probably so. I was so worked up in confusion and doubt that I had an internal knot that had to be kneaded out, so to speak. The clearest way I can communicate my central crisis about becoming an iconographer is that I feared being inadequate to the task of painting the face of the God-man Jesus Christ. My concept of the iconographer had been one of a passive transmitter who must obliterate their personality and individuality in order to faithfully portray the Truth. In my mind, there was on one side the risk of failure, and on the other side the loss of my identity. Failure looked like falling short of making acceptable icons of the True One (thus as an artist, ultimate vocational failure). Loss of identity looked like the possibility of success in making acceptable icons, but at the cost of my own creative voice and individuality. In other words, so much of who I knew myself to be would have to die in order to make an acceptable icon, that nothing would be left of the me that I liked.
In getting out of this funk it’s hard to say what was most instrumental – the prayers and support of people who love me, the pushing of my priest, the time needed to suffer and mature, the experience of working at it, or the teaching and encouragement of Aidan and others. Surely all these forces are manifestations of God’s loving providence. But yes, beginning when I met Aidan on that trip, and in my conversations with him over the next three months, he gave me the encouragement and validation I personally needed to believe that iconography was something I could do. Perhaps some souls aren’t in need of others’ validation to move forward in their life, but it’s been quite a theme for me.
There was also a thought of the heart that came to me when I visited the monastery of St. John the Baptist in the days after my initial 5-day course with Aidan. This spiritual community has provided me with significant guidance at several key milestones in my life. On this occasion the thought that struck me was this: the work of depicting the face of God is not best considered as a height of inaccessible artistic perfection (that one strives towards, always failing to properly connect). Rather, it is an invitation. When Andrei Rublev painted the face of Christ, when Fr. Gregory Krug did so, it was Jesus Christ himself who wished to show his own face to those iconographers, through their own hands. The calling to manifest His Face in icons was something the Lord wished to bless his iconographers with first and foremost. Before anyone else would see these faces of Christ, the iconographer would get to see them wonderfully arise in the medium in front of their own eyes, by their own hands. And with this thought came the sense that I was being invited to that same joy. This is the thought that dissolved the stubbornest bonds of my internal conundrum.
Now, to answer your question about Aidan’s character as a teacher, I would be most delighted. I believe Aidan is currently the best teacher of iconography that one can seek out in the English-speaking world. He is thorough, patient, cheerful, and erudite. He is also very kind. Aidan is the sort of teacher that conveys to all what is most important in a subject, and then cultivates each student according to his/her own gifts and natural inclinations. His aim is to raise the bar of excellence in iconography as high as possible. He is a practicalist, not a perfectionist. His curriculum devotes roughly equal time to theory and to practice. His taste in iconography is eclectic, appreciating many diverse schools within the Tradition.
Actually, Aidan is a great lover of many secular arts as well. He directs his students by example to live as the honey bees that gather pollen from all manner of flowers, storing up and making spiritual honey in our hearts. He teaches that we must immerse ourselves in the life of the Church, and that as we learn to hear the music of heaven in our soul, this will guide us as we step forward in the creative work of making icons. Aidan is bold in his exploration of the best ways to express the gospel through iconography, not shying away from new compositions. He forbids his students to trace the prototypes we study, but to always make a fresh drawing of our own. He is passionate in his lov
e of the liturgical arts, but also seems to know his own limitations. Aidan has taught iconography in a formal setting for a number of years now, and has developed an excellent curriculum that he leads his 3-year students through, which I hope can be emulated elsewhere. These few words I can say about my beloved teacher.