Hello everyone! Although I promised myself I would never go through a dry spell on my blog, or ever make an excuse about life being too busy when no content was uploaded (as bloggers often do!), I’m afraid that life did indeed get the better of me in the month of January, and I need to apologize! As many of you know, ministry is often erratic in its demands and some times of year are busier than others (and a great blessing just the same!).
That said, I’m thrilled to present to everyone the first part of my interview with Michael Elgamal, a very talented Orthodox Christian artist who runs the website “Creative Orthodox,” posting creative designs of sayings of the Desert Fathers and stories of saints. Among his many projects, he has recently finished a graphic novel on the life of Saint John the Short, which I can’t wait to read! Feel free to check out his art projects here: https://www.facebook.com/creativeorthodox/
Father Niko: Tell me a little bit about yourself! Where you’re from, how you became an artist, your whole life story!
Michael: That’s not overwhelming at all! (laughs) Well, I’m Michael, I was born in Egypt and my family moved to Canada when I was fourteen years old. I was raised in the Coptic Orthodox Church. It’s actually tough for me to outline my path in comics and my path in Orthodoxy that led to this one, unified path. To start at the beginning, the Church is a great storyteller. Christ told parables & our Fathers wrote icons to tell their stories. We were told more than a few times in the Desert Fathers that the Spirit would lead one saint to another to tell their story. It seems like story has a very important place in God’s plan for salvation, and the way God manifests Himself to humanity.
When I was young I was just absorbing these stories. My grandfather was the biggest catalyst to this. He was my biggest influence when it came to Desert Fathers and saint stories. I remember vividly he would come every week when he and my grandmother would visit, he would walk in with his hard plastic suitcase, give me a hug and then immediately would sit down, open his suitcase… it was almost like a performance for him. He would do it very slowly and very calculated, he would take out a saint picture, read their name, tell me their story, show me the veneration on the back, and he would do this weekly. That was where I really started to take in these stories.
At that point I wasn’t really telling stories, not like the way that I am today. I had always drawn. I’ve always drawn comics for fun. I would draw exaggerated comics about my family. The way my mother would yell at me to study, I would draw that. I would draw myself wearing a hard hat trying to run away from her. Just stuff like that, trying to get a laugh from her and my family. But it was never for a reason. My life in church continued, I was always very close to church in parallel. I just continued drawing and started reading comics. I grew up on Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series. Reading these comics for what they are, the stories they were. I never really connected the two.
Just four or five years ago I was reading a graphic novel by Craig Thompson. He drew the desert-scape, and the figures that he drew sort of looked like saint pictures – but they were comics. That’s really when it hit me like, “He’s on to something!” That’s when I really started sketching saints, sketching desert fathers. Honestly, I can’t really tell you what inspired me to draw the graphic novel of Saint John the Short. I can’t remember what made me start a humongous project and go on for four years illustrating it! But I started and didn’t stop. That evolved into [illustrating] almost every day. Making digital illustrations for the saint of the day or something in the church.
If you look back at old icons, especially at the ones that were drawn in the caves in Egypt like Saint Anthony’s monastery, they look like comic books drawn on walls. The connection was very easy for me to make later on.
I never say what I do is drawing icons, because they’re not. I would be doing such a huge disservice to iconographers if I called doing what I do iconography. But it’s such a different dynamic in that I can react faster to things going on around church in such a tumultuous time if I feel like there are things that would comfort, that would react to the times. Within a day or two, I would have these illustrations up. [Digitally, it’s almost like a living icon- not in the usual context – but if someone notices something that I didn’t know about that saint or icon and points it out, I would go and fix it and reupload it. The easy access that the digital realm gives me just adds a whole new dimension to it.] That’s how Creative Orthodox came to be.
FN: Do you draw as a profession as well, or is it a side project for you?
M: I started this when I was unemployed. I had just graduated from marketing and I was just applying everywhere it wasn’t happening, and I needed to keep busy. So I just turned to this thing that I felt I should be putting my time into.
FN: You mentioned how it’s not icons, but you know, there was a time in many parts of the Orthodox world where people could not read. Iconography was [and is] for veneration as well as education. It was for conveying stories, as you said. So even though you’re not writing an icon (and I’m impressed that you said the right word, by the way- we don’t “draw” icons, we “write” icons, partially for that reason), you’re still telling a story about a person of faith. That’s really, really cool. I can totally see how that would help you out in your own relationship with God and in your own faith education.
M: Exactly. And it comes with positives and negatives. Most of it comes from the fact that I wasn’t officially taught iconography. Iconography in its pure form is much more than illustration. You take the eggs for Tempera colours from the soil, it’s its own process. I don’t think iconography would be the same if you took it to a digital medium. I think you’d be losing a lot of what iconography is. For me, the other part of it is that I get to illustrate different perspectives, moments and stories. And I do it purposefully – I try to find new perspective. That’s the thing – icons have a set of rules that make them the revered images that they are. For what I’m doing, I get to speak by picking different moments that weren’t really uncovered before and exploring them.
I know that I’m not theologically or spiritually advanced to write an icon and know that everything in it is correct. I know that I’m going to make mistakes. It’s funny because people see the mistakes, I’m uploading so fast and if there’s a spelling mistake in the title people would tell me and I’d fix it right after. It gives me freedom to learn and freedom to grow. It gives me freedom to, as I’m exploring faith and going on my journey, I can express it artistically and not be bound by the fact that it needs to be perfect, to abide by the artistic rules that our fathers determined.
FN: How long ago did you start Creative Orthodox, and when you decide you wanted to start sharing it on the internet?
M: I believe that was exactly a year ago. It’s funny because I was drawing and sharing things from my own personal account first. Something that one of my spiritual mentors stressed is, whatever we do for service, we have to stop every step of the way and ask “What is the point of this? Why are we doing this? Is it for the glory of God or is it for another reason?” I needed some sort of a name or brand that disconnected itself from me.
I didn’t want this to be tied to me and be about my own skills or my own talents. I sort of wanted it to be this entity that pushes saint illustrations onto the internet and into people’s daily lives. But it’s never about the person. This is why this is strange to me. I’m not used to talking about my own personal life as it pertains to Creative Orthodox. That’s really what it came down to when I started it. I just didn’t want it to be about me. I didn’t want to have my own doubts and to stop with every single drawing and think to myself “Am I just loving the likes and the shares I’m getting and people telling me I’m talented? Just remove that element altogether. It’s not about you, it’s about the things that you’re doing.” God can get a monkey with the same skill set and replace me. I’m in a position to do this- I have the tablet, I have the computer, I have the background in Photoshop or whatever, it’s not about me. I’m in this position to do this. That’s sort of how I approached it.
Part 2 next week!