Years ago, when Kerstin Engman was at art school, she had to take an art history course that focused on religious iconography. Finding the lectures on the paintings boring, she recalls snoozing through most of her classes as a young student.
“I admit I wasn’t always the most attentive,” Engman, who goes by “Kris,” said.
That was then. These days, the prolific midcoast painter and sculptor has been producing her own gilded icons, though with a big difference. Instead of paintings of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, saints or angels, Engman, 65, has made icon-style portraits of women around the world with important stories to tell.
So far, Engman’s Gilded Icon series includes women such as Eve, who represents the women who have been sold or coerced into the global sex trafficking industry. Engman chose that name because Eve was the first woman in Christendom and also is an extremely common name in Eastern Europe, where many trafficked women come from. There’s Bianca, a 15th century Italian girl who was married at the age of 13 to a man 25 years her senior and died that same year because of complications from a pregnancy. And Artemesia, the daughter of an Italian Renaissance painter who strived to be a painter herself despite great odds and great prejudice against women painters. There’s also a geisha, who represents the girls in Japan who spent years being trained to serve as companions and entertainers for men. And there’s Lola Pulido, who spent more than 50 years toiling as an enslaved person for a Filipino family living in the United States. Lola’s story was told several months ago by the son of the family, a journalist, who did not sugarcoat her reality. And there are more to come in the series.
“Each one of these is a representation or characterization or illumination of an issue, of an age-old problem, and I don’t think it’s been visually portrayed,” Engman said.
She wanted to change that. And so she has painted their portraits with care and love. They are small, a little bit smaller than a standard sheet of paper, and adorned with lavish applications of gold, aluminum or copper leaf that shines and shimmers in the light. Those haloes seem to elevate the works to a higher plane, which is part of what Engman is striving for.
“I borrowed the halo,” she said. “All the saints and holy figures are rimmed in gold to signify their grace with God. Although I’m not interested in creating a religious context to my icons at all, all of them have been gilded.”
Her interest in religious icons stems not, of course, from the classes she slept through but from a later trip to Italy with her children and now-ex husband when she was in her 40s. Engman, the daughter of two artists, always had been an artist.
She spent 25 years primarily making bronze sculptures, mostly ignoring any inner pull towards color and paint. But on that trip to Italy, something changed after their car broke down near the city of Perugia. They had to wait there for a few days for the mechanic to fix it and so Engman wandered into the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, which features many religious icons from the 13th and 14th centuries.
“I wandered into this museum with my family. I’m sitting there with my jaw dropped at how beautiful these icons were,” she said. “It made me weep. I kept going back and back. I knew the day would come when I would make an icon. I was so in awe and so inspired by the magnificence of those paintings.”
When Engman returned home to Maine, she didn’t change her focus right away, instead keeping busy raising her family, teaching art and finally switching gears from making bronze figures to paintings. The walls of her large studio at Belfast’s Waterfall Arts center are full of the vibrant, colorful still lifes, landscapes and portraits she has done. The studio is where she offers workshops in color theory, drawing and design. Engman also works as an assistant professor in the University of Maine art department.
For 20 years, icons remained on the backburner. But that changed in the last year, and her timing seems spot-on.
“It just so happened that this little simmering idea of icons co-existed with things that were happening to women [in the greater culture],” she said.
This fall, the cultural conversation has been full of women coming forward to talk about their experiences suffering sexual harassment and assault at the hands of powerful men. The emerging #MeToo movement has given a tidal wave of women a way to share painful stories which once were kept secret. Engman’s icons seem like an organic part of the conversation.
“I didn’t say there’s a foment out there and I’m going to get on that wagon,” she said. “I was just quietly making my icons.”
But they are not quiet.
Engman displays them every Saturday at a booth at the United Farmer’s Market in Belfast and has noticed that while men and women might stop to look at them, the women do more than look. Perhaps the one that strikes the biggest chord with people is the icon of Lola, whose lined face looks beatified by the silver halo around her.
“The women want to know the stories, or they make suggestions about who the next icon should be,” Engman said of the icons’ reception.
There are a lot of contenders, she said. Too many. She’s working on an icon of Aadila, a girl who has undergone Female Genital Mutilation. And she’s thinking about making an icon of one of the millions of Chinese women who suffered from bound feet, and an icon of one of the women who has accused Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was a teenager. In other words, her work on this series is far from done.
“I don’t see myself becoming a painter of icons [forever],” she said. “But the icons, they take up a lot of the thoughts that are in my head.”
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