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Raymond Calvert’s Iconography

Lessons from a Belgian monk

“The only time I feel alive is when I’m painting … ” – Vincent van Gogh

Sure, artistically detailing the intricacies of crown molars and those unpronounceable what-cha-ma-call-its that kept all those Apollo Project vehicles up there in outer space on their way to the moon paid the bills… But did it really quell the savage beast that calls out from the soul of every artist?

It does when you remember that the beasts and not the bills, come first.

Just ask Raymond Calvert.

Calvert, a native of the 9th Ward, who now lives in a super upscale subdivision on the “wrong side” of the infamous 17th Street Canal (the one that broke after Hurricane Katrina and laid waste to much of Lakeview), has, for much of the last 18 years, been the artist to go to when it came to the ancient art of iconography – that is, the painting of icons.

Calvert, 75, who at one time drew for technical manuals doing “parts breakdown” on the Apollo Project at Michoud, also detailed medical books for the Louisiana State University School of Dentistry for 29 years before retiring. And through it all, he never strayed far from the brush and easel.

“Growing up on Alvar Street, I always had ambitions to do art, but never had the expertise,” Calvert says. “I have a sister who became a nun and a brother who studied to become a brother. I just followed in their footsteps. During the 1950s I went to St. Joseph Seminary on the Northshore as a student. I had hoped to become a diocesan priest in New Orleans. That’s at the time Dom Gregory de Witt, the Belgian monk whose work can be found throughout St. Ben’s (St. Joseph Abbey). He was decorating the church there and the refectory. And I loved what I saw. I admired him and his work. I was truly impressed by that. That’s when I moved forward into my painting career.”

In late 1989, after attending Tulane University, Calvert moved to Notre Dame Seminary on South Carrollton Avenue where he earned a master’s degree in theology.

 But while Raymond Calvert was never ordained to the priesthood, all that studying in “holy places” and his brushes with Dom Gregory de Witt and iconography left an indelible mark on his creative side. Calvert gives one of those slight smiles that say that all of that led to his epiphany moment and his love affair with the creation of icons.

“I started painting what I thought were icons,” Calvert says. He shrugs his shoulders: “I kept at it and hoping that I was improving.”

“I went on a trip to Europe,” Calvert continues. “I started buying books on iconography, icon painting, the great icons of Rome and Germany. Finally, I got an opportunity to do an icon, a cross for Trinity Episcopal Church here in New Orleans. It was for a service they were having.” He adds, “The following year, I did that again for the Church of the Annunciation. Up to that point, I didn’t have much experience. It was strictly a volunteer job. They need a focal point for their service. I was getting more and more involved in icons and that’s when I ordered a book out of a publishing house in California.

“When I got the publishing house owner on the telephone he asked me if I belonged to this association of iconographers. I said, ‘no,’ so he sent information to me. In the information was an application to attend a workshop by Philip Zimmerman who had created hundreds of icons for churches and private collections throughout the world. Zimmerman was painting in Pennsylvania. He called me and we talked, I signed up for a class with him and that changed my life.”
If Calvert’s introduction to Zimmerman “changed his life,” a later opportunity to study with Paul Ninas who was called the “Dean of New Orleans artists” put that change into high gear.

“I was thrilled to be able to study with somebody of Paul Ninas’ stature and reputation,” Calvert says. “It was only for a very short time, but it was meteoric. It was like it was ordained to happen. Paul passed away shortly thereafter. After that, I stayed busy – I just kept painting. I worked for commercial trade journal publications. About that time, I went to work for Boeing – the Apollo project at Michoud. I kept painting all along, getting my work into shows and galleries. I did watercolors … whatever I could. Finally I got to do two icons for the Christian Life Center at the Abbey (St. Joseph). Those brought me two commissions for two icons at St. Francis Xavier Church on Metairie Road.

“Just recently, I was commissioned for two more at St. Francis Xavier. Once it started and I finally realized what my calling was, it seemed like they just kept coming. To date I’ve done just under 100 icons. The largest commission was for 14 Stations of the Cross for St. Monica Church in Edmond, Okla.” He continues, “Right now, my work is strictly with icons. I don’t want to do anything else. I couldn’t even think of doing anything else. Right now, time is the biggest factor. There are things outside my work that I must tend to. I do find time, however, to teach a class in icon painting every May at the Abbey.”

Calvert leads a visitor through his pin-neat home, and stops to point out how Hurricane Katrina water crept up the walls waist-high, demolishing everything in its wake. He and the visitor are followed by Calvert’s tiny white yapping snowball of a pet dog into his studio. It, too, is neat: no canvases stacked high; no brushes left to stiffen on the drawing board. He shows a video of overlays that point out how an icon is built, and he gives a brief history of how icons date back to Egyptian times and flourished in the Christian catacombs of Rome and how the genre made a brilliant comeback during the late 1800s. Calvert speaks slowly and distinctly, but his voice peaks more than ebbs when he’s speaking of his beloved icons.

Back in his den, with the tiny dog at his feet, Calvert explains the difference between a Monet or a Rembrandt and an icon. He talks of the spiritual aspects of his art … all spiritual. “All icons are prayers,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Who knows how many molars were saved because of one of Calvert’s illustrations at the LSU School of Dentistry. And Calvert’s pictures may have had as much to do with getting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon as anything Werner von Braun could come up with.

But Calvert is certain of only one thing: the object of his icons is to carry the viewer beyond the moon – far, far beyond.

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