Cross Cultural | Pittsburgh City Paper

Cross Cultural

For Sister Rosaire Kopczenski, art is a spiritual endeavor


Surrounded by lit candles and recorded chants, she hunches over the small icon. Painting carefully, painstakingly, her colors are glowing gold, electric blue, blood red. "I like an atmosphere of quiet spirituality," Sister Rosaire Kopczenski says.

To make religious icons properly, she says, "Artists enwrap themselves in meditation as they paint. They say prayers before they begin: ‘May I do this work with devotion and diligence, receiving Your divine grace and blessings, and never with a spirit of rapaciousness or monetary greed.' Then, when we are calm and spiritually engrossed in the images, we are transfigured." She pauses. "Icons help us enter the world beyond."

Sister Rosaire smiles, nods, goes back to her extraordinary craft. "I feel inspired to do this," she says. "It's a calling to be with God as you paint."

The icons' colors, images, letters are hypnotic. The figures are angular, the eyes almond-shaped and piercing. "An icon is a window into Heaven," she says.

The images she paints include both individual portraits and tableaus that tell a story: The Nativity, for instance, has elements of the Three Kings, the journey to Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt. Her work today is a painting of Mary of Egypt, a prostitute who encountered an icon in church, repented, converted, and became a saintly woman of the desert.

"There's a lesson here," Sister Rosaire says: "If she can change her life for the better, other people can, too.

"Icons do help people," she adds. "Icons are there when difficult times come. Icons instruct people to remember that they can reach the good in their lives rather than surrender to distractions."

Sister Rosaire reached the good quite some time ago. Devout as a teen, she took vows right out of high school. "I had a need to find what I had to offer others," she recalls. "Where their needs were. I found that I identified with the poor."

Taking her cue from St. Francis of Assisi, who cast away an indolent life to serve the needy, she joined the Sisters of St. Francis, an order that began by working with lepers in 19th-century Hawaii. Sister Rosaire herself has worked with indigent women in shelters and on the street during her six-decade career. But as the daughter of a mold-maker who ran his own foundry, she also grew up making art, and later earned degrees in fine arts and arts history. She's taught art in both high school and college.

After discovering iconography some 15 years ago, she took classes "to adjust my style," she recalls. Her figures became more stylized, her palate strictly controlled by symbolism. "I was able to accept the canons and speak the language of icons," Sister Rosaire says. "More than that, I felt that I could use icons to help people who need a spiritual door opened."

Over time, Sister Rosaire became so proficient that she decided to give iconography classes. These days, she uses the basement art room of the Mount Alvernia Motherhouse, a re-cast Millvale high school. Her students, ranging in age from 37 to 87, are drawn to the tantalizing figures, storytelling and spirituality.

And increasingly, in this highly secular age, when churches and religious schools seem to close daily, her students are also drawn to something they can't find elsewhere. Something spiritual, something greater than themselves. Something consoling. And icons are an entry, an invitation.

"They feel God in what they do," Sister Rosaire says of her students. "They feel spiritual grace when they paint. Every stroke is an act of love. Every stroke is a prayer."

When they've finished their icons, she tells her students to make a beautiful corner in their homes for their sanctified art and then find in that place peace and love and prayer. "Each icon," she tells them, "is a reminder of who you are. Of the fact that God is in you, and that you are a part of God.

"Icons," she continues, "should affect your life. They should help you be more calm and peaceful. They should enable you to meet the problems of the day with more sanity. In that way, icons are transformative. They make you more loving than you were before."

Sister Rosaire speaks quietly now, her head down, her hands nestling in her lap. "The world is chaotic," she muses. "Wired. Painting icons is calming. Centering. In your soul there's a quietness. When you finish an icon, you're still and quiet."