Sacred Images

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Artist Lewis Williams finds a spiritual connection with the landscape of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

lewis-williams-artworkA religious icon, from the Greek “eikon,” meaning “image,” is traditionally associated with the Eastern Orthodox Christian Byzantine church. Icons are used in sacred rites, as focal points for worship, and they usually depict a character of the faith, such as a saint or other religious leader. Icons are sacred art, in that they transcend the usual purpose of art as entertainment. Icons are used as bridges to the divine.

Lewis Williams, one of this year’s artistsin- residence at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, found himself unexpectedly immersed in the world of religious iconography after viewing the Apache Christ by Brother Robert Lentz [https://www.].

So moved that he was not satisfied viewing a reproduction, Williams sought out the original, displayed in the St. Joseph Church in Tularosa, N.M. Up behind the altar where images of Jesus usually prevail hangs the Mescalero Holy Man, which Lentz painted to celebrate Apache culture. Lentz notes that, “Apache prophets have much to say for those with ears to hear,” and draws attention to the similarities between Christianity and Mescalero Apache beliefs and practices in his explanation of the icon.

This particular image, and the fact that an icon could depict more than Byzantine figures, motivated Williams to seek an apprenticeship with its painter, master iconographer Lentz. However, according to Williams’ wife Denita, he had to wait a year. “Brother Lentz asked him why he wanted to paint icons, and Lewis didn’t have a ready answer, so he told him to come back later.”

Williams can’t remember a time he didn’t want to be an artist. Planning to use his art in a practical manner, he studied art therapy in California as an undergrad, and went on to get a Master’s in Fine Art from Utah State University in Logan. Williams had hoped to be able to teach, but found better luck working as a landscape artist.

After being told to wait by Lentz, Williams took a weeklong workshop with iconographer Peter Pearson at the Ghost Ranch, where participants worked on an icon of the face of Christ.

“That’s what hooked me, because I painted so differently,” smiles Williams.

Prior to these events, Williams says that like most of us, “I looked right past icons, since they’re not a language everyone understands.”

But he discovered a process and discipline that appealed to him, stretching his artistic capacity beyond landscapes. A year later, in 1999, he found himself in Albuquerque, apprenticing with Lentz.

“Robert really didn’t want to take me; he was going to retire. I am the last apprentice he had, and I had to want it. It was a vocational decision rather than a career move,” he laughs.

The apprenticeship lasted four years, and Williams says, “I would have preferred longer,” but Lentz went back to the Franciscans to do a novitiate at St. Michael’s Parish on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Following him, Williams found a job teaching art at St. Michael’s high school for a year.

That was in 2003 and he’s been painting religious icons ever since. Williams says he has painted about 35 or 40 by now, and has a long list of people he wants to do. He usually works on commission, and some icons can take up to a year and a half of solid work, as did a 7-foot-tall by 4-foot-wide icon of St. Daniel he painted.

This year Williams applied to be an artist- in-residence at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and was selected, along with landscape painter Jeff Potter, as one of two artists for the 2013 season. This new program began in 2012 and has the goals of promoting “appreciation of the cultural and natural resources protected within [the monument], awareness of the unique and the fragile nature of these resources; and visitor ethics and conduct that support resource preservation.”

Any artist over 18 is eligible to apply, and any medium suitable for digital reproduction is accepted. The proposal should address program goals and natural or cultural resources within the monument. Chosen artists spend a week at the monument, are required to donate one finished piece to the BLM and must give a 45-minute public presentation during their residency.

It is estimated that there are more than 30,000 archaeological sites in the monument, part of the reason Montezuma County has the most artifacts per square mile in the entire mainland United States. According to Michael Williams, interpretive specialist at the Anasazi Heritage Center, Canyons of the Ancients is the first site managed by the BLM to have an artist-in-residence program, although this year the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument sponsored one.

The AIR program at CANM was inspired by Wayne Rice, now retired from the BLM. Williams explains, “When we started the program we were adamant that the artists had to be in the monument or adjacent to it. This year Lewis Williams was in a travel trailer at Castle Rock, and last year the artists stayed at a nearby bed-andbreakfast. Every year it’s a little different.” Although new, the AIR program is successful, with over 40 artists applying for the two residencies in 2013, and presentations have been well attended.

Lewis Williams gave his public presentation, “A Love for Deserts and Canyons: A Sacred Connection With The Land,” on July 21 at the Heritage Center. He said he loved the experience. “They don’t tell you where things are, so I got to explore. Go, seek and find for yourself,” he said.

The idea, for Williams, became similar to what Lentz had accomplished with the Apache Christ icon. “How do I project what is sacred in the landscape?” Williams mused. As he spent more time on the land, visiting the ruins, walking the trails, finding artifacts and ruins or rock art not on the maps, he began to have some ideas about the Ancestral Puebloans who inhabited the region long ago.

“I don’t think the people here picked places at random,” he explains. “There had to be a definite spiritual component. Everything in their life depended upon this sacred connection to land. I wanted to try to connect with their connection to the land.”

The rock art got him thinking. Ancestral Puebloans were putting down images in two dimensions, just as he does. “Why on certain boulders? Why in the same place over time? The images were important to them, just like with me and my religious icons.”

The challenge for Williams became one of depicting the spiritual connection to the land. The religious icons he paints are used to transcend, and, according to Williams, “the power comes when you put in the eyes. Then, if that window to another consciousness opens, if that thing happens, I’ve done my job.” Williams started taking the approach of icon painting to the landscape. For instance, in painting an icon, the light emanates from the person. Williams asked, “Do objects in nature radiate a sacred presence?” And if so, how could this be painted?

He began to play with stylizing the natural images, such as portraying sky as a series of spirals, as a way to communicate this other- worldliness. “Does sacredness emanate from the landscape and we recognize it? Or does what we do there make the place sacred? Or both?”

The residency gave Williams time and opportunity to apply what he learned as an iconographer to landscape painting. He says it is tricky to combine the two, since landscape painting tends to be plein air and a quick-draw image can be completed in several hours, which is not the case with icon painting.

However, he says, “The standard has been built into me,” and he often takes his quickdraw landscapes home to work on them the way he would work on an icon.

Is nature sacred? Williams believes it was to the Ancestral Puebloans, and his residency stirred his interest in combining iconography and landscape painting. He is excited about the potential of blending these traditions.

“I think things in our environment, if you believe in the creator, have this power and other-worldliness. Sunsets, wind, trees, storms, rocks, stars – I wonder about these things and that is part of the magic. I had the opportunity to fall into much mystery, and I was in awe.”

For more information and to view paintings by Lewis Williams, check out the following links: (his icons) (his website)

For more information on the Canyon of the Ancients Artist in Residence program, visit: (CANM-AIR)

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From August 2013.