Friday, June 28, 2013

Mind Body Spirit Artist Series - Christina Saj

Artists express their spiritual and religious beliefs through their work in a number of 
ways, but probably one of the oldest and most traditional is through the use of religious icons.  
Christina Saj is an established artist who not only carries forth this 
sacred tradition through her work, but she is also someone very much of her
 own time - giving her iconic art a contemporary spin as well.  
I hope you will find her interview as informative and interesting as I did!

                                                                                                        ~ diane fergurson

Birth of an Angel, mixed media

MBS: Can you tell us a little about your background? How did you get started making art?

:  Painting is my destiny. I have always enjoyed making things and had a bent for it. I formally declared my intention in first grade having entered a poster contest about "what I want to be when I grow up". Even then, I was certain I wanted to be an artist. Our entries were hung in the window of a local department store and  I won first place. It was the first acknowledgement of my interest and the sense that I had talent. As a kid, I took elective classes whenever I could and was determined to start working in oils by high school. I explored a a variety of media, but was always drawn to painting.

My ethnic background is Ukrainian and I was lucky enough to know several working artists growing up and it seemed to me to be a viable occupation. Although a good student, by the time I went to college I was looking forward to being able to focus more on artistic pursuits. I went on to receive a BA in Fine Art from Sarah Lawrence College, followed immediately by an MFA from Bard College. While still in college I had an apprenticeship with a noted Ukrainian Iconographer Petro Cholodny the Younger in hopes of mastering egg tempera and the precepts of icon painting. These lessons stayed with me. Though I went on to pursue contemporary renderings my work is deeply rooted in the familiar tradition which had become part of my vocabulary. 

MBS:  It's interesting that you said you had the opportunity to be around working artists growing up.  That can make such a huge difference in the choices one makes to pursue an artistic life.  What are some of your thoughts about that? What did you take away from that experience?

Christina:  Being around working artists makes it real, viable and possible to imagine a life that is built around the serious pursuit of creative efforts.  It's not about that imagined, romanticized ideal of what we think it should look like. They were normal people, not all rich or famous, but contributing and realizing their talents.  I was also lucky to be part of a community that respected artists and supported them. Artists were just part of the landscape with the gamut of all people who make up the community at large -- it was just another job description.

I got to see them function, and saw the mechanics, which were often messy, all encompassing and not necessarily idyllic. Artists create in the middle of it all... it doesn't stop or start like a 9-5, its always there.  It can be all consuming and keep you up at night or if you're blocked keep you indefinitely at bay. You have to have the ability to make work regardless of the resources, for making good art and good money don't always follow, though they can. By necessity artists often had creative solutions to issues of "employment" or economic stability. I saw that artists have to have a glimmer of hope an idealism I suppose. But most of all you learned that artists can make magic anywhere, without pristine beautiful studios and all the perfect trappings that one imagines in the ivory tower. In their little corner of the world, sparks can fly. Making good art is about ideas, mastering skills, and practice! practice! practice!  Being an artist isn't about where you live, having time, or who your friends are (though a community  is necessary for support and dialogue). It's about doing it every day, expanding on ideas -- and hopefully making things that resonate and have meaning.

I accept that creating is part of my life and always will be, in one form or another. I trust my gut. I realized early, that I had a vision which was compelling and felt worthy of focus and letting go of expectations to make room to do serious work.  Twenty years in, I still just try to embrace the chaos and savor the joy of the creative act itself. I try to channel it so that I can be productive, content and continue to grow while managing all the pitfalls and demands of a full life. 

Archangel Gabriel, egg tempra
MBS:  For those who may not be familiar with it, what is Iconic Art?   

Christina Byzantine icons are sacred paintings of holy figures often depicting Jesus, Mary, saints, angels, or biblical scenes. They are devotional paintings used in prayer and often adorning eastern catholic and orthodox churches. They are rich with symbolism and there is a long tradition of rigid precepts making they decipherable to anyone who has been exposed to their vocabulary. Figures were always depicted the same way and inscribed with initials, to make them recognizable. Their purpose was didactic, as they were used in the early church to illustrate the narratives of the bible. The general population, then often illiterate, could remember the stories as they explored the images painted throughout the walls and ceilings of the churches. Small panel icons were used in personal devotion as a means communing with God.

MBS:  What do you find about Iconography/Iconic Art that is so compelling or interesting that you have made it the focal point of so much of your work?
:  I adore abstraction. I grew up with a deep appreciation for the modernists and relate to their breakthroughs in non traditional representation. But, I realized that often it helps to have a point of entry for a painting... and in the end as an artist I need it to communicate something fairly specific. It seemed only natural to look to stories. Mythology and folklore with their mystical qualities seemed like rich areas to explore that lent themselves to bright color and fantastic depictions and these are areas I still explore. Icons were a natural for me because they were part of my experience. They have a rigid structure for telling stories which I could reinvent and make my own and yet work within the confines of a vocabulary people could understand. This offered another layer of appreciation and meaning, for in an icon it's all about symbolism.

There is also actually a tight correlation between abstraction and the way figures are represented in icons. Because the figures in icons are not of this world, they weren't held to the same expectations. Perspective was distorted and there was a sense that things were not supposed to be of this world. Finally, the way they were actually executed was by building up flat planes of color which meant that the approach was really based on the principles explored by the modernists, with whom I felt a kindred spirit.

I also think that in order to be good at something, you have to really know it, study it, and keep at it. Today art is full of casual appropriation. We live in a world where it's easy to cut and past "loaded" images, one that have ideas associated with them...but more often than not artists are not necessarily versed in tradition and technique. It's easy to make something look clean and finished without lifting a brush or knowing how to physically MAKE something.

Artists traditionally make things. In this digital age, I feel even more compelled to do so. I feel it is my obligation to know my tactile craft, to practice expertise and continue a tradition so it is not entirely lost.  Though as is evidenced by my work, I believe in evolution and change to reflect the age you live in. But significant contributions don't usually just happen. You work at them. 

Guardian Angel, mixed media on panel
MBS:  Oh I think that's a terrific point about a lot of artists' not actually having or utilizing the physical ability to MAKE something.  And when they do, it tends to be craft oriented, not really art.  Not that there is anything wrong with crafting, but still...  Speaking of making things, can you tell us a little bit about your process when you make your artwork?  For example what materials do you use?  What sizes do you work in etc?

 Christina:  In learning to paint icons I studied egg tempera. When I do more traditional pieces for devotional use, in egg tempera I build my own boards, make my own gesso, lay gold leaf and make my own paint from pure pigments. So it's involved and relatively speaking slow. It can take a week or two to prepare the substrates alone. Egg tempera is then built up. It's a fairly thin paint, opacity depends entirely on the individual pigment, so often a fair amount of layering is required. Because you make your own paints, you can mix them differently than commercial pigments and there are specific steps in preparing grounds for gilding.
As citizen of the 21st century and with a natural curiosity about materials, I have worked on glass, metal, wood -- and enjoy finding interesting ways to arrive at traditional elements such as gilded surfaces through use of a variety of different metallic surfaces. I started working in oils in high school and have worked on a wide range of surfaces to achieve different effect. My scale is often dictated by project itself. When working on an installation in a worship space, the needs are usually for large scale pieces. I've often found creative ways to provide work which is developed with a specific space in mind. Recent projects have often been driven by a request or invitation to a particular venue, but I continue to explore things of keen interest to me often initially on a small scale which I really enjoy. There is something delicious about working on an intimate and personal scale.

Although I don't want to digress, I do recognize that with the commercialization of prefab art supplies there is a tendency to go with easy out of the box... one of those. I do see that the proliferation of "craft" materials with projects in mind and defined end goals really don't teach people how to be truly creative or to think independently. So much of being an artist is about finding a voice and developing basic skills which lead you toward a vision. The time it takes to master these things affords you time to explore and think and really understand what you are doing. It's not just the end product that is the driver, though making gesso and doing preparatory work such as building boards isn't always compelling work there is something about the act of preparing for the mark making which makes the act more sacred.

St. George and the Dragon, egg tempra
MBS:  What are you currently working on?  Do you work in a series?  Any particular shows or
commissions on the horizon?

Christina:  I tend to work on a number of things at once... bouncing in and out between several pieces. I have been exploring some new media recently. So I've been doing some experimental works that have really just afforded me a place to just play. With 20 years in, a recognizable style, and a personal vocabulary it's easy to settle in. I've done half a dozen solo shows out of state in the last few years and so I've decided to consciously slow down and to stretch and allow myself room to expand my repertoire and try new things. I am always intrigued with reflective surfaces and have been looking at different ways to achieve that. I have also been allowing myself to do a lot of small studies which stand on their own rather than building towards a larger work. I often do work in series. The parameters of which can be determined by any one of a number of variables, scale, media, shape and/or subject.
I show in traditional gallery environments, but also often in liturgical spaces. I have been lucky to have requests from venues to exhibit bodies of work and or to do installations. When in religious venues, they are often tied to the liturgical calendar. I am just getting started on a series on the stations of the cross. I have had repeated requests and am now ready to tackle it. It will be featured next spring. The work surrounding icons is built on research an study of prototypes. I want my reinventions to come from an informed and carefully considered position. I keep books of notes with areas I have intentions to explore, and  sometimes things need to germinate so you can build up to them. I also find ideas come when I'm in the middle of series and working on a project and get ideas I can't get to till I'm ready for the next one.

I have been fortunate that in the last couple of years I've had museums approaching me for inclusion in curated exhibits. This winter there will be a show entitled "Sacred Voices" at The Canton Museum in Ohio which shall feature contemporary Christian, Jewish, and Muslim artists who are seeking to express faith through their art. It being done in conjunction with another exhibit at the museum entitled, Illuminating the Word: The St. John's Bible.

Mother of the Sign, oil on panel
MBS:  Since we originally met, you have children.  How has motherhood impacted your life as an artist? Also, what is a typical work day like for you?

:  Motherhood is a blessing, but also a challenge if you want to do serious independent work. I had a well defined identity as an artist before I had kids. This meant I was actively involved in it when they showed up and couldn't imagine my life any other way. I didn't question my commitment at that point, but I certainly faced the challenges of all working women. Children make your life rich and full, provide insights, joy and shift our perspective as well as providing lots of distraction. They need and want attention. But I try to set realistic goals and work hard.

Right after my daughter was born I was working for a semester as an Artist in Residence at New Brunswick Theological Seminary at Rutgers University and did a temporary 300 square foot installation before she was 8 months old. As a baby she often came with me to the studio and the project was flexible enough that I could do it. Once they start walking it's a different matter. Then you need help. I feel lucky that I can make my own schedule and most of the time be able to be available when my kids need me and found help for when I had to really focus. There are definitely days I struggle, am tired and feel like balance is a real challenge. I try to work around my family's needs, but I consciously carve out time to do projects that are important to me. Exhibition schedules being what they are, we often plan exhibitions long in advance. When my son was born I had several out of state shows that had been scheduled long before his arrival. So I tried to just pace myself.

The early years are a sleepless blurr, but prolific enough. I did six solo shows in the last three years, so where there is a will there is a way. Since the they arrived I have carved out time that I can work every day, hiring someone to take care of them at least for a few hours a day so I could work. I believe in a disciplined approach. I was never one for hanging around waiting for inspiration. This served me well once I had kids. Generally I work in the early part of the day. My daughter is in school now, so I revert to mom most afternoons revisiting my studio and anything left over from earlier in the day in the evening.
The prism of youth invites us to rediscover the world and certainly, I have been inspired to do work which will have resonance and meaning for them. I have several pet projects I want to get to which certainly find their roots in my experiences with the kids, still working on fitting it all in, but taking notes for future reference.

MBS: I see that you are selling some of your work online now.  How has the whole online experience been for you, not just in terms of sales, but networking etc?

:  The web has leveled the playing field for artists. It is an amazing resource that can serve you well and the whole world is your audience.  I was an early adopter. I have had a website since 1996. There is no question that it has afforded me visibility, increased exposure, and many opportunities which might not have materialized otherwise. It's a great way to stay in touch with other artists, dealers, collectors and just plain old art appreciators.... while pursuing this isolating work in the studio. Selling online means your work is readily available to the general population.  And I think that the tools available today are frankly amazing. It has changed the way we communicate, and given artists, especially folks getting started big advantages. I have forged new relationships and stayed connected because of the net. I certainly try to use them but it's important to remember they are just tools. The message is still key. If you are looking for an audience there is no question that there is one out there... so I think artists should embrace the web not be afraid of it.


MBS:  Any advice for those who wish to (seriously) pursue an artistic path?

Christina:  Make the best art you can, push yourself, stick to your guns and stay focused. Relish the creative act itself. That is where the magic is and what it's about at the core.
To "make it" in any sense, you have to work hard, you have to love it, you have to develop a thick skin and not get discouraged. 


 thank you Christina!

Christina Saj is a painter who lives and works in NJ. She holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence and an MFA from Bard College. Early in her career, she mastered the technique of Byzantine Icon painting.  Her contemporary interpretations of icons have been widely exhibited including such venues as the American Bible Society, Union Theological Seminary, The Ukrainian Museum in New York, Museum of Cultural Heritage, Kiev Ukraine, the American Embassy in Qatar as well as at the White House. Her works reside in private and museum collections in the US and abroad.  

You can contact Christina at: or visit her shop on Etsy
Her website is at:

Links to other interviews in the Mind Body Spirit Artist Series.


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