Hilda Kleiman, Iconographer

Were you always creative and into art, or did that come later?

I have always taken part in the arts in a variety of ways, both in school and on my own.  I have been a writer since childhood, which naturally led to majoring in English as an undergraduate and an MA in English.  In high school I did a lot of theater, primarily backstage and tech work, which led to my minor in theater.  My mom introduced me to needlework as a child, and I pursued that as my primary craft until about eight years ago.  

My understanding of myself as a maker took a big turn in the last couple years when I read some of the letters of Vincent Van Gogh and started listening to podcasts such as Art for Your Ear by Danielle Krysa.  I had always understood myself as a writer and continue to do so, but now understand that I am a maker, that I share a vocation with those who approach the world through the work of their hands and the creation of useful and beautiful objects.



From following your story, you have gone through some transitions lately.  How has your art practice helped you or changed as life has shifted?

Last June, I left the Catholic religious community of which I had been a member for fourteen years.  I had a good and serious discernment process prior to leaving, and I am at peace with my decision.  Art and making had a place in that discernment in that in addition to using writing as a discernment tool, I also started keeping a sketchbook as a sort of visual prayer journal.  While by this point I had some experience with visual prayer because of my study of iconography, this was much more open-ended and just for me.  The work in the sketchbook didn’t have to be good; its only purpose was to help me explore my discernment.  Since leaving the monastery, I have continued this practice.  The visual goes beyond words in ways that I find profoundly appropriate to prayer and further discernment.

Keeping the sketchbook also encouraged me to explore other media that I had not used much in previous years.  After receiving a subscription to Creative Bug, I started making use of their classes on drawing and painting.  Just in the last couple months I have discovered paper arts, particularly paper-cutting and paper flowers, and I hope to keep experimenting with this medium.  Being open to having a variety of media be a part of my daily art practice has brought me much joy and confirmed my sense of myself as an artist and a maker.



Would you tell us a bit about being an iconographer?

Iconography is a liturgical art, the art of traditional images of Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints that are used in the liturgy of the Church, though they are also found in homes and other places of prayer as well.  We usually associate these images with the Orthodox Church, yet in recent years there has been renewed interest in icons in the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations as well.  

Iconography is different from other visual art, even other religious art, in that the iconographer works within the iconographic canon that guides his or her use of sacred geometry, color, and imagery.  An icon is always based on an ancient prototype from the earlier centuries of Christian history, so the work of a contemporary iconographer is intimately tied to that tradition while also naturally being a part of his or her own time and place.   The act of making an icon and the icon itself is a form of prayer, and the iconographer’s vocation grows from within his or her life as a member of the Church.  Iconography is best learned through a relationship with a master iconographer who can teach and integrate the student into the theology, aesthetics, and technique of the icon.


I am a student with the Iconographic Arts Institute and study individually with a master iconographer, Mary Katsilometes.  Mary and the other instructors at the Institute speak of the vocation to the icon as playing out in a spectrum.  Some Institute students may make icons as part of their personal prayer or for the homes of their family and friends.  Others may become ambassadors of the icon, giving talks, retreats, and similar presentations focusing on iconography.  Still others may accept commissions and become teachers of iconography themselves.  More information about the Institute may be found at iconinstitute.org.

I have made icons for family, friends, and students, and I am currently working on an icon of the Mother of God of the Sign for a work colleague.  Iconography was the focus of the dissertation project for my D.Min, and I have incorporated iconography into several of my classes at Mount Angel Seminary, as well as other talks and presentations.


I’ve noticed you have many routines and practices that you are adding to your life and sharing with others, particularly regarding minimalism and living with intention.

Since leaving the monastery led me to set up my own household, I have had the opportunity to start with very little and to carefully consider which objects I want to have in my home.  I am not a minimalist in the sense that the goal is to have as little as possible; the goal is for each item I have to contribute to my experience of health, beauty, or freedom.  Stated more negatively, if looking at an object makes me feel bad, I get rid of it!  In terms of kitchenware and personal care products, I am making sure I regularly use the items I have and reducing the use of plastic and disposable items as much as possible.  I have also been making use of the work of Katy Bowman on nutritious movement, which means that I am working to ensure that my space facilitates as much daily movement as possible.  For instance, that means I am typing this sitting on the floor, changing my position every few minutes and taking breaks for finger stretches.  Katy Bowman has a wonderful website, nuritiousmovement.com, and she is also active on Instagram.


Do you have any tips or advice for people who are looking to take on a new practice or create change in their life?

A couple of approaches have and  are continuing to help me.  First, take the time to listen to your own heart in whatever way is appropriate to you and your circumstances.  This may be prayer, mediation, or other centering practices.  It may be simply getting outside and going for a walk.  Second, take any change one step at a time.  Even if you are at a point in your life where you are experiencing a lot of change at once, there is still only so much that can accomplished in one day.  So be patient with yourself and any others who have a part in helping you.

Third, if the change is especially serious or extensive, do what you can to find people who can be of emotional and spiritual support to you and have your best interests at heart.  Depending on your outlook or your needs, this can be a work colleague, friend, family member, a member of the clergy or your faith community, or a therapist.  We need not go through change alone.


What’s next for you?  Do you have any big dreams or goals you would like to share?

I have had a book manuscript accepted for publication, so finishing that is one of my big projects in the next year or so.  In terms of other projects, my goal is mostly to just keep going!  I am always doing further reading and research to support my teaching and looking for ways to offer what I have for the good of the Church and the wider community.  As an iconographer and an artist, I want to keep sharing my work and building connections with other artists, both in my local area and online.  My primary goal and practice is to make art in some way every day, which is why I value the example and support of the Carve Out Time for Art community.


Hilda Kleiman, D.Min., is an associate professor at Mount Angel Seminary, a Catholic seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon.  She teaches courses in writing and literature, the humanities, and religious studies.  She has also been a student with the Iconographic Arts Institute since 2009.  Her blog is incarnatebeauty.blogspot.com, and she can be found on Instagram with @hilda.kleiman.