By Debbie Shelley 

The Catholic Commentator 

St. Helena emerged from the vaults of Catholic history in an array of creative expressions through the power of prayer and paint in a five-day Byzantine icon workshop featuring the saint at the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens in Baton Rouge on Feb. 10. 

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Icons of several other saints were on hand to inspire students making their icon of St. Helena in a Byzantine icon workshop at the LSU Botanic Gardens. Photos by Debbie Shelley | The Catholic Commentator 


St. Helena was the mother of Constantine and empress of the Roman Empire. She visited the Holy Land and had churches constructed at sites considered the place of Jesus’ birth, ministry, passion and death.  She is believed to have discovered several relics of Jesus, including the true cross and the nails used to crucify Jesus. 

As they crafted their saintly portrait, students learned a traditional art form of prayer that dates back 2,000 years and is practiced by the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. St. Matthew was the first iconographer, according to Orthodox tradition.  

Diana Wells, iconographer and member of the committee which hosted the workshop, credit Ginnie Bolin for first spearheading the first icon workshops in 2014, which are now held twice a year. The Friends of the Garden host the workshops, which benefit the Burden Museum and Gardens. 

Students were provided the supplies and the paint colors were “auditioned” by the committee, according to Wells. 

Even before their initial paintbrush strokes, students prayed and followed instructions. They traced a pattern of the saint from an icon book onto an icon board. Then the students got to work painting. 

They were aided in their endeavor through modern technology, said Mia Levert, the workshop’s technical director. 

Since students forgot some of the techniques, demonstrations were recorded. 

“We’d airdrop it to (their electronic devices),” Levert smiled. 

As the students intricately painted St. Helena’s facial features, the fold of her gown and other features, they produced many creative interpretations. 

“If you go around the room you see each one has its own personality,” said Pat Snow, who described her St. Helena as “pensive” but liked the nail she held in her hand. 

Snow has studied iconography for the past 30 years under such master iconographers as Phillip Zimmerman, who gave month-long retreats in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. 

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Many students’ favorite part was applying 23 karat gold leaf on St. Helena’s halo.


But she noted, “You don’t have to be an artist to do this, you just have to follow directions.” 

This is welcomed news for first-time students, who may find the process daunting, but the instructors tell them “you can do it.” 

“If you need to start over, you can; it’s a learning process,” said Wells. “ ‘Everything is fixable,’ that’s what we tell our students.” 

Friends Regina Rispone and Ginger Cary “love St. Helena” and attended their first workshop to learn iconography together. 

Cary said painting St. Helena’s face was challenging.  

“At first I thought ‘It looks bad,’ but later I stepped back and said
‘I did that,’ ” said Cary. 

Rispone was also pleased with her first icon. 

“I prayed while I was doing it, that’s why it turned out the way it did,” she said. 

Rispone said she related to St. Helena because, like her, she has a good relationship with her adult son and has visited the Holy Land. 

Kristen Thompson, who has attended the workshops since 2014, said, “I pray to the saint (featured in the icon) or St. Luke. It’s amazing, and I don’t know how I did it.” 

“She does beautiful work,” Wells chimed in. 

Dee Cavalier, attending her sixth workshop, said “Every time I do this I feel like it’s the first time … I love the social atmosphere.” 

Leigh Brittain, who is relocating to Baton Rouge from Port Neches, Texas, found peace as she glorified God through her artwork and made friends. 

“I didn’t know one person from here in my life and now I know 24,” said Brittain. 

The students “crowned” St. Helena by applying 23 karat gold leaf to her halo. 

The saint was then ready to grace the homes of her creators. 

“My neighbor next door told me that after they are blessed they come alive,” said Karen England. 

Pointing to her icon, she said, “You see those ears? They are listening to our prayers.”