Lost and found in San Miguel – a woman discovers Byzantine icon painting

Mary Jane Miller is an artist in San Miguel Allende who fortunately, not only discovered the worth of handcrafts, but also that of religious iconography.

Born in Nyack, NY, Miller began her art studies in Boston in the 1970s. She found the experience tough and asked for the school’s catalogue on international exchanges. She opened it up to the letter I.  “It could have been Iceland, but it was the Instituto Allende and I said, I’ll go there.”  Today, she says that it was a “godsend.”

The Instituto Allende is the school that put San Miguel Allende on the map as an art and expat enclave. It has had its ups and downs, but one thing in its favor is that it does not make an absolute distinction between art and handcraft. It has always taught classes such as weaving and ceramics, along with the classic painting and sculpture.

Miller knew nothing of Spanish, San Miguel, or the school when she arrived. Within 18 hours, she met her future husband and business partner of 43 years, a fellow artist.

Her exchange year in San Miguel was spent working with clay, on projects such as reproductions of Mesoamerican and pre-Colombian South American artifacts. But this work was not accepted at the Boston school, so she decided not to return.

Image of Jesus with silverwork done by husband Valentín

Instead, she embarked on a number of business ventures making various fine handcrafted items. The first was leather clothing and handbags, which she did with Valentin after they married and went to Boston. A year later, the couple moved to San Miguel to build a house. They then spent 10 years of so dividing their time between San Miguel and a farm in rural Virginia. Their main business at that time was the weaving of 100% wool rugs that mixed Navajo designs with Oaxacan color schemes.

They also ventured into fine furniture making in San Miguel. In the late 1970s into the 1980s, San Miguel was still small, but Americans and others were moving in, buying old colonial houses and refurbishing them. This meant tearing out a lot of old wood, that Miller could get for almost nothing, and empty houses that needed furniture. Working with clients, they developed a simple, Mission-like furniture style that often incorporated tin panels with folkloric scenes the she painted. Today, this kind of furniture is popular in San Miguel.

In the early 2000s, Miller and her husband became tired of splitting their lives between two countries, two lifestyles and two businesses. They moved permanently to San Miguel where they remain today… Valentín’s hometown and just three blocks from the Instituto Allende.

However, this change was preceded by one far more profound. About 25+ years ago, Miller discovered the painting of Byzantine iconography while in Virginia. An acquaintance invited her to a class that made the religious images using earth pigment and egg yolk tempura paint. Miller went thinking she would find a hobby. She found much more

Magdalena and Astrology by the artist

“When people think of art, they generally don’t think of religion.” By the end of the first class, she knew she had found something that melded her passion for art and the Christianity she had reembraced. The process of icon painting is long and tedious, but it is a much a spiritual exercise as an artistic one.

After years studying all of the traditional techniques and approved imagery, she found herself dissatisfied because of the 500 or so sanctioned images in the Byzantine Church, only 14 are of women.

Being rebellious by nature, she began to break with tradition – first to include more female images and later, even to include non-Christian images such as that of Plato and Mohamed. She is a defender of traditional religion in that she does not appreciate that some people blame it for mankind’s misery, including war.

However satisfying spiritually, the shift to icon painting was “scary” because up until then, her creative energies had been poured into financially-rewarding activities. She knew that such painting was a niche market at best, odd in the US, and even more so in Mexico. Icon paintings are not cheap to make; the paints are applied meticulously in layers with a small brush and take time to dry. Many icons require the application of gold and silver leaf. It is not unusual for images to take many months, even years.

To take care of the practical costs of living, she does other work. She published several books related to iconography, especially after she started doing her “radical icons.” She teaches icon painting, in workshops, classes and retreats both in Mexico and the United States.

Although the San Miguel of today looks nothing like what she saw when she got off the bus there in the 1970s, she still calls it a “Mecca for people who are lost, who need a break, a little rough on the edges. It is a place of healing.”

Miller can be contacted at https://www.facebook.com/sanmiguelicons/ and https://sanmiguelicons.com/

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