Friday, February 09, 2007

At Superstore with the Iconographer

Lately Krista and I have been reading a fair bit of poetry since she splurged and bought me Rilke's Book of Hours. And some might know that "On His Blindness," by John Milton, is one of the poems closest to my heart, describing acutely what I felt at a few times on my journey to the Orthodox Church. (I can identify somewhat with this friend and fellow traveller).

On His Blindness

WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

- John Milton, 1608-1674

Last night I had the experience of going grocery shopping with the master iconographer, Heiko Schlieper. He is 76. We are friends. I've known Heiko only 3 years, since I moved to this provincial city in the Spring of 2003, a city locked in winter for seemingly half the year. I started working very closely with Heiko just as his eyesight was dimming. I watched him paint his last icons, a panel of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, and Christ's Last Instructions to the Apostles, over the door exiting the narthex of St. George's Church. I interviewed him on tape each morning for about six months, before I went to work at the Tree Stone Bakery, gathering information on the several-year-long project of painting his masterpiece of St. George's.

After some intense training, in December '04, I helped him gild the last icon in the Church (not the dome pictured here, which he did solo in the early 90s). He used double-weight German gold leaf from the Ruhl company, "gold-beaters" Heiko calls them. We mistakenly applied 12-hour gold size and so it was nearly midnight when we climbed the ten-foot scaffold to start gilding. It was incredible. Specs of gold floated in the sacred air. As I recall, Heiko didn't offer his traditional incense (Benson & Hedges 100s) that night. I worked very slowly and carefully. Heiko, nearly blind, worked quickly and perfectly, his fingers knowing his image and the gold so well. Is it sacreligious to admit that we blasted Mahler that night as we gilded?

Since the Fall, we have shopped together with Heiko. It is an everyday activity that one can easily take for granted. Heiko had carefully arranged a service called "Seniors Driving Seniors," to take him shopping, but they only drive you, and he needs assistance in the store to procure his gourmet ingredients. So he had arranged with another company to have an assistant meet him there, but when he finally did, the guy they assigned admitted that he could not read! So, it works out much better this way. We go together - and since Krista and I have the requisite skills of both driving and literacy, grocery shopping goes much more smoothly. And, Heiko generously cooks amazing sauces and treats for us to freeze and use at home, always adding, "It's easier to make a larger amount." Last night we went to both the Italian centre and Superstore. Heiko cracks wise, usually with salty limericks about our former Governor General. It is good simply to be with him, to help him find his quail eggs, sardines, and pork fat for his homemade sausages. I sometimes think he can do more blind, at 76, than most people can who have sight and the prime of life. He "best bears His milde yoak."
May God grant him many years...

The south transept of St. George's Church.

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Blogger elizabeth said...

what a very special event; you and Krista are very blessed; it is wonderful to read about this!

thanks so much for sharing.

9:20 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

Matt and Krista, your travels continue to astounded me. Even when you are homebound, hanging with Heiko up in the rafters? Transforming a trip to Super Store into a sacred journey? Blindness can't be all bad when we have angels close by.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

Oops! Make that, "astound."

9:50 AM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

Elizabeth & Ken:

"Amen!" to you both.

10:35 AM  
Blogger papa herman said...

Thank you for sharing about this. It was a pleasure to read.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Simply Victoria said...

yes, matthew. you are a good writer. this was clearly written with so much affection.

12:45 PM  
Blogger elizabeth said...

yes; it is so good to hear about the blessings God is giving others... i still remember before i was a catachumen (spelling?) at st. hermans (i moved shortly after being made one) kimberly telling shannon p about you, her brother and how you were in england, and then her going to your chrismastion...

so neat that we are all part of one big church, even when seperated by distance and time zones :)

7:11 PM  
Blogger RW said...

I am amazed at the life you lead!

9:04 PM  
Blogger daniel greeson said...

thank you for sharing this splendid story Matthew. I have been very very intrigued by the entire Icon making process, i hope eventually to spend some time writing one. Thank God for men like Heiko.


9:49 AM  
Blogger Eric said...


Thanks for the story on Heiko. It vividly recalls my experiences with him. I've often thought that a biography of his life, if well written, could be a magnificent story.

I think of him often and regret that I can't make it to Edmonton more often.

Kind Regards,


10:03 AM  

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