I began college in 1979 at Abilene Christian University. If you've never been
to Abilene, Texas, I can describe it simply: it is a pure environment. I'm
talking about West Texas pure-vast sky, piercing sunlight, severe vistas. There
is also a purity and severity of character in Abilene. When I attended school,
there were no liquor stores in the county. Not that it mattered much: A.C.U. is a
Church of Christ college, so besides a prohibition on consuming alcohol, there
was to be no dancing, no smoking, no sex, no shorts. Purity of life was
prescribed for each student.
Yet Abilene was also the place where I learned how to paint. I began college
as an art major, and it was through painting that I learned how to survive in a
place of severe purity.
I only lasted 18 months in Abilene. Depressed spiritually and physically, I
dropped out in the fall of 1980. I might not have made it at all if it had not
been for the spiritual discipline of painting. It was in that peculiar process of
applying paint to board and canvas that I came to a mature understanding of my
relationship to God in prayer. It is not too much of a stretch to say that
painting taught me how to pray.
Before I began painting, I'd always had trouble praying. Prayer-at least as I
heard people speak of it-was never an easy discipline for me. Something about the
empty space required for prayer filled me with a combination of dread and
fatigue. It was as if I'd be judged on the quality of my praying even before the
substance of my prayer had formed in my mind. It was a frustrating state of
But then I learned a way of praying that made sense to me. Prayer was in the
creative process. I discovered that when I painted, I was freed inwardly to be in
the presence of God. There was nothing in this space but me and paint and God. I
was at once completely present in the moment and completely unconscious of
People who paint or who take on some other physical discipline describe this
state as "flow consciousness." One enters a flow state when one is fully absorbed
in an activity during which one loses the sense of time and has a feeling of
great satisfaction. When I painted, I became completely involved in the process
and found that my ego-the self I display publicly-would fall away. Time flew by.
Every action, every brushstroke, every movement of hand and arm and body seemed
to follow inevitably from the previous action, and I discovered stillness.
As I found my vocation shifting from the visual arts to the priestly arts, I
have continued my creative work. Although less of my time is taken up with
painting, I manage to pray this way using other media, namely icon painting and
large-scale installation. In moving from the studio to the "pastor's study,"
taking time for creative process keeps my praying alive.
I discovered that when I painted, I was freed inwardly to
be in the presence of God. There was nothing in this space but me and
paint and God.
On the surface, icon painting and large-scale installation could not be more
different. Icon painting is about smallness and perfection of line, more akin to
making jewelry than to painting a canvas. Installation art is about largeness and
immediacy, more akin to printing a billboard than to painting a canvas. Yet
working in both media I experience the same sense of prayerful attention that I
learned so long ago in Abilene.
When I am at work on an icon, I am aware of two modes of prayer. The first is
the familiar sense of "flow consciousness." Gilding a halo or floating paint on a
face may take an hour of intense concentration, yet time does not seem important.
Whether I work for five minutes or five hours, I am aware of being present in a
moment that is out of time. Sitting before an evolving holy image, my attention
is concentrated, but I do not sense fatigue or restlessness. My hand, my arm, and
my body are controlled but not stupefied or dulled.
The second mode is much more subtle. The tradition teaches that when one
paints an icon, one is not just objectifying the person; rather, one is in
communion with the person being represented. In fact, the icon painter is
encouraged to stay in communion with the subject continuously through the
creative process. I have found that this communion continues after I leave the
image. It is not at all unusual for me to dream of painting while working on an
When I am at work on an installation piece, my prayer is quite different. My
first major piece-a 10-by-20-foot banner printed on sheer fabric-was commissioned
by the Spirituality Conference of Trinity Institute, an outreach of Trinity
Episcopal Church in New York. In 2002 the conference met at Camp Allen, outside
Houston, holding services in a huge space that was essentially devoid of
large-scale art. Since the purpose of the conference was to learn about spiritual
practice in community I chose an image that would serve as both a devotional
focus for a large group and a metaphor for the spiritual life of each
participant. Later, in the summer of 2003, it was installed at Grace Cathedral in
Deisis, 2004. By Paul Fromberg. Banner printed on
sheer fabric, 10' x 20', installation at Grace Cathedral, San
I named the piece Deisis, after the original image it reproduced a section of
a mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul's vast and ancient Byzantine church. It is a
word that points to the intercessory nature of prayer, and the image tells us
that we are intercessors with Christ, praying for the well-being of the universe.
Although in the banner I used only the central figure from the mosaic, in its
original setting two other figures are visible: Mary and St. John the Baptist.
Each stands in orientation to the central figure of Christ and is in prayerful
dialogue with Christ, who in turn is in dialogue with the viewer and with the
Divine Father. Thus the viewer is invited to come with her or his prayers before
these saints, who continually pray to God.
Since I chose to focus on the Christ figure, I used the medium to help convey
the metaphor. The sheer fabric allows one to view the piece from either side;
light passes through it freely. Just as light passes through the image, so our
prayers are presented transparently to God. In addition, my representation of the
Deisis is divided into four fields of color, reminding us that we all pray to God
in our own way. Each of the four panels composing the banner is separated by an
18-inch-wide strip of black netting, giving the impression that each panel floats
independently of the others. And although the image is divided into four parts,
it is still a unity held together by the image of Christ.
My prayer during the creation of this piece was much more frantic than the
prayer I experience in icon painting. In painting an icon I am patterning my
technique on one perfected centuries ago. I am consulting with an individual and
working with naturally sublime materials. With Deisis I was inventing the
creative process as I went along. I was working with a large group of people,
wrestling with computers and inkjet printers and sewing machines.
And yet, even in the frantic, extroverted creation of Deisis I found that I
was doing what I did not know I could do. Without knowing how to create this work
of art, and quite beyond my own perceived abilities, I found resources of energy
and insight that guided me in the creative process. And when it was finally
installed high above the altar at Grace Cathedral, I understood something about
prayer that I had not experienced before. Prayer is about the ability to release
anxiety and frenetic energy to the God who is sovereign over both.
My life of prayer and my life in creative process are far from their
conclusion. I know that I will continue to learn more about prayer, and about the
One to whom my prayer is directed, as I use my gifts of creative ingenuity,
power, and skill mindfully and passionately. And no matter where life will take
me, I know that I will be able to pray.