Bay artist finds healing in a new old medium

Cork paints icons such as this one, ‘The Guardian Angel of Boaters,’ using ancient techniques: a wood surface, egg tempera paints, gold leaf and a linseed oil coating.
Cork paints icons such as this one, ‘The Guardian Angel of Boaters,’ using ancient techniques: a wood surface, egg tempera paints, gold leaf and a linseed oil coating. Special to the Sun Herald

When artist Nina Cork moved here from Texas last year, she said she fell into a creative slump. It took a look backward, 1,000 years into the past, to bring her out of it.

For years Cork worked as a sculptor and potter in Texarkana, Texas, cultivating a following with her abstract figures and “prayer jars.”

Her husband got a job offer here last year, and after visiting, Cork said she fell in love with the town. Moving meant leaving behind her friends, community, customers and two of her adult children, though.

“Every time you move there’s a bit of excitement,” she said. “There’s nervousness, you’re trying to make new friends — those are the fun parts. But you’re grieving for what you left behind.”

Not ‘clicking’

Cork said she tried to create some pieces in her usual style, but felt like nothing was clicking.

“I just couldn’t be creative,” she said. “I had this crazy creative block.”

She kept thinking about icons, an art style she’d seen in Europe. The style of painting is less about creativity and more about meditation, she said.

She tried painting some, and found she was feeling inspired again. Now her icons hang in the Mockingbird Cafe here.

An ancient style

Originally, icons were created as a kind of conduit between worshippers and the holy people depicted in them, one theologian wrote in a history of the art form. The artworks were made according to strict standards, treated with reverence and thought of as partially divine creations.

Nancy Wicker, a professor of art history at the University of Mississippi, said the style is still used in Eastern Orthodox art. The gold backgrounds which feature prominently in so many icons, she said, helps create the sense that the subjects are “not of a specific time or place.”

One of Cork’s icons hanging at the Mockingbird Cafe is called “Guardian Angel of Boaters.” In the work, an angel looks out with onyx eyes. A glimmering halo rings her head, and a listening ear turns toward the viewer.

Cork uses medieval specifications to create her icons. The paintings are done on wood with an archaic paint called “egg tempera” made from egg yolks. She also uses gold leaf to give the works a glowing effect. The paintings are sealed with linseed oil to protect them from water damage.

There is a meditative component as well — 40 hours of prayer go into the creation of each icon, she said, though prayer can come in the form or study or reflection.

“This doesn’t require you to be creative. It requires you to be prayerful slash mindful.”

A bridge between Texas and Mississippi

Cork said her icons have helped her find closure, alleviating the feelings of “grief” she felt after leaving her old community. At the same time, it has helped her look forward to life in Bay St. Louis.

Teri Wyly, a Bay St. Louis resident, began following the artist as soon as she found out she would be moving here. She has bought a number of Cork’s pieces to give away as gifts. She said Cork’s work spoke to her when she saw it.

“They’re sort of whimsical but they have a bit of soul,” she said.

Chris Thomas, a friend and fellow artist Cork left behind in Texarkana, said the first time they met for brunch five or six years ago, the two women spent several hours talking.

Thomas didn’t have much experience making pottery at the time. Cork taught her a “pinch” technique for making bowls, and helped her develop her skills until she created her own style.

“There’s so much to learn from her,” Thomas said. “And she’s so generous.”

Thomas said she felt a spiritual connection with Cork’s icons, particularly with the “Guardian Angel of Boaters” work.

“There’s something about the eyes,” Thomas said. “In one sense they draw me out, but in another sense pull me inward.”

A childhood influence

Cork traces her interest in icons to the small Catholic church she attended as a child growing up in Plano, Ill. Behind the altar of the church was a mural depicting Mary ascending to heaven.

“It took up the whole wall,” Cork said. “There’s these clouds, the garments, the gracefulness of the body. She had this graceful neck and these long graceful hands.”

Cork would find her attention drifting during services, then her eyes would light on the mural. The mural pulled her mind back to the holiness of the service, she said.

“That imagery really made me fall in love with my faith.”

If you go

Nina Cork works out of the Bay Artist’s Co-Op, 415 S Necaise Ave, Bay St. Louis.

Her icons will be displayed in Mockingbird Cafe, 110 S 2nd St, Bay St. Louis, until June 15.

Cork’s pottery and prayer jars are available for purchase at Bay Life Gifts, 111 Main St. D., Bay St. Louis