He Uses His Iconography To Meet Others

Read about Kelly Latimore painting icons and why he chose to be an artist.

Our generation is looking for new ways to live boldly and more deeply engage the world — whether that’s fighting for our climate or advocating for justice or appreciating moments of wonder. So it’s no surprise that art is an important resource to us — it helps us integrate and reflect more deeply on our place in the world. 

Kelly Latimore is an artist who is fusing his curiosity about faith with his passion for artistic expression to offer a modern take on an ancient art form: icons. Featuring both traditional and nontraditional saints and spiritual leaders, his work brings to life mysteries of our faith — and invites us to let those mysteries penetrate our lives, too. 

To learn a bit more about Kelly and the art that is capturing people’s minds and hearts, I spent some time chatting with him about his hopes as an artist and as a person seeking to live a life of both prayer and action. (This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Kelly, your icons are both peaceful and evocative, both grounded in tradition and distinctly contemporary. Your art cuts through these contrasts in compelling and challenging ways. How did you arrive here? 

I think it began with incongruities I was seeing as a young person who grew up as a pastor’s kid — I inherited a faith that made it seem like it was me and Jesus against the world. And, as I got older, I didn’t always connect with that spirituality. I wanted other people, too! I wanted more community. I wanted a way to go through life not alone and turned in on myself. 

After I left home, I felt like I was in this spiritual wilderness for a while. When I didn’t know what to do in college, a great mentor told me to take any classes I enjoyed, and so I chose all religion and art classes. It’s all come together in a way that I never really imagined. 

After I graduated, I joined two good friends who had started a small food pantry farm — we organized our life with prayer and we grew food for local food pantries. Working on the land in that way felt like going home. There were so many genuine conversations when picking carrots across from someone. I was moving from a transcendent spirituality to embodied, incarnational action. The way we use things in the world is of the utmost spiritual significance. 

A priest on the farm had asked me if I’d ever done iconography, so I started poring over books and I was really curious. I started tracing over old images and spending time with the classic icons. 

Walk us through your creative process when writing an icon. 

Iconographer means “image-writer” or “depicter of life,” so that’s how I approach iconography. I respect the tradition of the Orthodox Church, so I try to understand their artistic expression of faith and move it forward, as we do with all art. I want to understand what has come before and then present it in a new way. I see these images (which is where the word icon comes from) as windows to heaven with the subjects of the icon as our guides who are teaching us how to live. I know that we are constantly inundated with images, so I want to see how the icon can focus us and our thoughts on God. 

As for the creative process, some works are commissioned by families or communities. Others are from my own life and arise through prayer, reflection, and conversation. It is a very collaborative process for me, and I do that all with my partner, Evie. We talk through forms and colors and subjects. 

An integral part of the process is pondering. I call it holy pondering. I have to be moved to awe during the process. I see this on the farm, too — this mystery of pondering. And I engage with a lot of different art forms, but I am grateful that iconography is the thing that I get to carry with and for others. So, the process necessarily involves pondering what we can never fully grasp. I think of Father Richard Rohr, OFM, who said that God is always an approximation — that we can never say God is. Or of Mary Oliver, who said poetry was trying to put to words what can’t be. I see iconography as a similarly mysterious task. And the icon becomes part of this holy conversation — not a lecture — about God.

Which pieces are you most drawn to in your own spiritual life?

I would say that the first icon that struck me was St. Francis of Assisi leaving his father. It’s basically Francis being stripped naked. It resonated with me and the ways that I formed my own ideas when I left home. And, we are very close with the Franciscans and their nature of letting things go.   

Of my own work, it’s probably a gold-leafed icon that some friends named the Cloud of Unknowing. It’s the most simple and probably means the most to me. There were so many layers of paint from my failed efforts to create this traditional icon, and then I just put a gold-leaf over it. But the layers were still visible. What’s behind the name is the reality that theology can only get us so far. We can’t come to really know God through the mind alone. We know God through prayer and through experience. We need to just be present. That’s how we come to know God in our hearts. I think this icon reflects this holy pondering. The perspective of Christ literally changes as you view this icon from different angles, which means that I, as the artist, really give it up and the viewer takes it on.

A priest friend of mine who had commissioned an icon we worked on together said that icons at their best can be both an icon and iconoclastic, in that they are breaking up our images of God that we have built. We need these images that don’t sit well with us or that we don’t know what to do. Like my icon Mama. It’s modeled off the Pietà and so many voices went into it and it led to so much dialogue. A lot of people in the Church didn’t like it and they had to talk about why it was uncomfortable.

We live in a world that is teeming with beauty and saturated by suffering and injustice. How do you hope that your art speaks to those of us who feel caught in this tension?

Young people need to know that it’s okay to feel that. It’s okay to not know. It’s okay to doubt. It’s okay to wrestle. This is all okay. I don’t think that’s a problem! It helps us to understand God and to understand ourselves. 

My hope for these icons is meeting communities of people. This art is a conduit for Evie and I to meet beautiful people. I just want more conversations, more voices. Culture tries to nail things down and that’s just not how the world works. It’s not how holy pondering works. 

Mama was a means to respond to the death of George Floyd — a form of mourning — and to connect that to Jesus’ crucifixion as a man of color at the hands of the state. People ask, “Is it George Floyd or is it Jesus?” and my answer is, “Yes.” I’m not going to tell you one way or the other. Christ was in George Floyd and you have to do the work to wrestle with that. 

Icons can guide our thought, prayer, and action — and, at the same time, can smash the boxes that we’ve put God and others in. They hopefully help us to see in new, embodied ways — in ways that spark conversation here and now because God is here within you, within me. 

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