Published January 26th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Across the centuries, the kind of artwork Tom Dolphens creates in Kansas City has generated deep theological controversy and riot after riot in Europe — especially in the Eighth Century and later in the 16th Century.
That turbulence has left us with the word iconoclast, which now mostly refers to people who challenge deeply held beliefs they consider wrongheaded.
It’s also left us with stunning Christian paintings that Dolphens, former art director at The Kansas City Star, produces in his home in Kansas City, North, as well as iconography produced all over the world, particularly by people attached to the Orthodox Christian tradition.
Tom, by contrast, was reared Catholic and today regularly worships at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, usually referred to just as Redemptorist Parish, at 3333 Broadway in Kansas City, home to one of the region’s most artistic and beautiful sanctuaries.
Why does Tom create iconography?
“I can tell you from my heart,” he said, “that I do them because I feel like I’m supposed to do them. That may sound weird, but I do them for the love of the images that I’m doing.”
I’ve referred to Tom’s icons as paintings here, but he believes they should be thought of not as painted but as written because they are, in effect, commentary on — or depictions of — scripture.
“My understanding of icons,” I said to him as we talked in his home studio, “is that they’re supposed to be a window into the divine.”
“Exactly,” Tom said. “And that’s one reason why you consider them written and not painted. Scripture is written and in some way icons are part of written scripture.”
One of Tom’s icons is displayed in a chapel at the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City. It’s called “Descent into Hell” and depicts part of what the Catholic translation of the Apostles’ Creed says of Jesus: He “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell…” One of his icons also can be seen nearby at Grace and Holy Trinity (Episcopal) Cathedral.
When Tom was growing up in Omaha, “holy cards with religious pictures were everywhere. And I thought one day I’d draw those kinds of religious pictures, and now I’m doing them at 68 years old.” He’s been doing this kind of art for 16 or 17 years now and has completed perhaps 30 of them, some of which he’s sold, some of which he’s donated and some of which he’s kept in his home.
But the process of producing an icon is different from traditional oil, water or pastel painting, and it took Tom time to get it right.
“I did a couple of them” to start with, he said, “and I ran them by a priest friend of mine. He said, ‘You don’t have the eyes right. The eyes need to stare at you because you’re supposed to feel the presence.’” So Tom worked on that.
Before even starting an icon, artists must make their own paint.
It’s egg tempera paint made by mixing egg yolk with water or vinegar. Icons also employ gold leaf, which Tom acquires from a brother who is a sign painter in Omaha and who buys lots of gold leaf.
I asked if icons help Tom in his own faith journey.
“Yes,” he said. “Before you do an icon you say a little prayer each day. You’re doing it for other people to connect with it and enhance their faith. That’s what it does for me. And every time I do one, I am grateful that I have the talent do to it. Now, you can’t sign icons because it’s not about you, it’s about the image. A lot of people have asked me to sign them, but I don’t.”
So in some ways the individual iconographer is lost in and to the art. Not only does the artist’s name not appear on the work, but the artist must work within fairly strict limits.
For instance, the symbols and the colors all mean something. In Eastern art, Tom said, the Virgin Mary is always in red, whereas Western civilization puts her in blue: “Colors mean a lot. Gold radiates the divine. And I have to go by the tradition.
“One of the things that always makes me unsure of myself as an artist is ‘Am I doing everything the way I’m supposed to do it?’ Then I think to myself, no, I’m doing it for the honor of God, so how could it be wrong?”
On Tom’s drawing board when I visited with him was the outline of a 4-feet-by-4-feet icon — one “I’m doing again,” he said. “It’s ‘St. George the Dragon Slayer.’”
He did that one some years ago and sold it. But he loved it so much that he wants to do it again and keep it.
At this stage in his life, Tom is free to do what he loves. Of course, it helps that lots of people love what he does.
Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.