By Pamela A. Lewis
Any lingering ideas we might hold about artists who paint — or, more precisely, write — icons quickly disappear when we meet iconographer Kelly Latimore and his large body of work. The affable 34-year-old suburban Chicago native (now living and working in St. Louis) does not align with the image of an elderly monk bent over a panel and silently and reverently applying pigment or gold leaf to the sacred face he is depicting. Latimore is transforming old notions about icon writing with regard to what or whom should be represented.
In contemporary usage, the words “icon” and “iconic” have come to denote objects and people who have assumed a larger-than-life, emblematic status. But the fundamental definition of “icon” remains unchanged: image. Not merely an artwork, the icon has traditionally been a sacred image used in religious devotion. Most commonly a painting (although they have been produced in other media), the icon has its roots in the Eastern Orthodox church, as well as in the Roman and certain Eastern Catholic traditions.
Describing himself as a “Baptist preacher’s kid,” Latimore acknowledges that his personal background stands in contrast to the icon’s history and tradition. Although he was “always drawing and painting,” he had no acquaintance with the art form, yet had always connected with the arts as a vehicle for creating things which he deemed beautiful. Serious study of art took root during his years attending Greenville University in Greenville, Ill., where he learned about different genres, artists, and techniques.
After completing his university studies, Latimore moved to Ohio, where he met a couple who had started the Good Earth Farm, supplying food for pantries. Subsequently, he encountered a community called the Common Friars, centered on the monastic way of life and prayer from the Book of Common Prayer three times a day.
The new relationships he cultivated in this community, as well as learning about how to care for the earth, inspired Latimore to readjust his spirituality, from one which had been, in his words, more about “personal transcendence,” to being “up there with God,” to a consideration of how we care for the earth as Jesus did. The “lilies of the field” was the subject of his first icon.
Latimore began icon writing at Common Friars. He has enlarged the genre’s scope, informed by a wide range of artistic influences, such as Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, and Alice Neel, and strongly focused on relationships, community, and social justice.
Given his experience as a farmer, connecting to the land has been very important to Latimore, and in many of his icons, he gives equal attention to the surrounding landscape as he does to the figures occupying it.
It is not simply a decorative background, but an element that interacts with and comments on the human subjects (such as “La Sagrada Familia”). Earth, sky, and vegetation are strongly delineated, impelling the viewer to engage with the totality of the icon, instead of solely on the subjects. Latimore’s handling of the background is a decided departure from writing traditional icons, where that pictorial element is rendered in gold (symbolizing the celestial realm), and the figures and their garments are pigmented.
Having grown up in a primarily-white environment and church community where he did not see or interact with people different from himself, Latimore has set out to fill those gaps by making visible in his icons those whom society has chosen to keep invisible. In that regard, the artist has peopled his icons with a different type of sacred figure, literally and figuratively drawn from the full spectrum of humanity.
This new imago dei comprises disparate public figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., the late Senator John Lewis, author Flannery O’Connor, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Oglala Sioux Holy Man Nicholas Black Elk.
By today’s lights, these were the “envelope pushers,” who challenged the prevailing social order and protested injustice. To Latimore, these are people “who have connected the word ‘Christian’ (even if they were non-Christian, non-believers, or whose racial attitudes were not necessarily evolved) with the liberation of the poor. They lived lives of presence. They were not focused on being holy; they were focused on being present.”
These are not the canonized saints of the church, whose sainthood was determined by miracles of extraordinary healings, but by bringing justice to those who had been deprived of it. Regardless of faith or creed, Latimore gives all of the figures in his paintings a gold nimbus (halo) to signify sainthood.
Icon purists have not been pleased with Latimore’s iconographic choices, and many have denounced his work. Ironically, most of the threats have come from Eastern Orthodox individuals in Russia and Ukraine, according to Latimore.
Reactions have been especially strong to two paintings in particular: “Refugees: La Sagrada Familia” (2016) and “Mama” (2020). “Sagrada” was inspired by the story of a young Guatemalan man who told Latimore about his struggle to come to the United States, and of the remains of women holding babies he had seen along the way.
The family in this icon refers simultaneously to the New Testament account of the Holy Family fleeing state terrorism and to the countless refugees from Guatemala and other Central and South American countries fleeing terror, yet seeking refuge in an America whose tone sounded anti-immigrant and anti-stranger.
Soon after the murder of George Floyd, Latimore painted “Mama,” as a way to mourn the man whose brutal death was seen around the world. The artist has written it in traditional icon style, and arranged the figures as a latter-day pietà, where a Black Madonna holds her dead son, whose likeness is unmistakably that of George Floyd. (When asked whether the son is George Floyd or Jesus, Latimore always answers, “Yes.”)
Whereas the Madonna would normally look at her son, the artist shifted her gaze to the viewer. This subtle shift moves the focus outward, establishing a community of mourners who may reflect on what they have witnessed and act to prevent its reoccurrence. In some places, protesters displayed the image as they marched.
Some have also questioned whether a white male artist such as Latimore should represent people of color in religious paintings, to which the artist responds that white artists have been painting Christ as white for centuries, when the truth is that he was in all likelihood a person of color.
“Racism,” says Latimore, “is the denial of the Incarnation; the image of God is within all of us. In my interactions with other congregations and clergy of color, they are looking for other ways to represent Jesus. This is what it means to be human and to be present.”
There is growing concern that in the so-called “post-Christian” West, which is witnessing declining church attendance, creating religious art such as icons may be a futile activity. Latimore strongly believes that the church can participate in movements against war, racism, hunger, and poverty, and that it can be a “living, breathing, visible community of faith, which is but another word for ‹learning›. The main task of the church is the formation of people who love where it hurts.”
Based in New York, Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith.