‘Into the realm of God’

Pomeroy artist says icon painting is a spiritually moving experience

click to enlarge ‘Into the realm of God’
Jordan Opp/Inland 360
Artist Mary Flerchinger's icons are on display at the Blue Mountain Artisans Guild Arts Center in Pomeroy through April.

Light shines through from heaven when Mary Flerchinger, of Pomeroy, paints icons, sacred images of people and events from Christianity.

“It’s a very spiritually moving experience, because the icon invites you into the realm of God,” Flerchinger said.

She remembers her reaction when she attended her first icon-painting class: “I can’t paint Jesus,” she said. “I can’t paint Mary.”

But the Roman Catholic artist learned she could, indeed, craft likenesses of the saints who shape her faith.

Examples of her work are on display at the Blue Mountain Artisans Guild gallery, 745 Main St., Pomeroy, along with spring-themed paintings by other guild members and a collection of local memorabilia dating back to the 1950s.

The exhibit includes 16 of the 20 icons she’s made, most of which are on loan from friends and family members she gave them to.

click to enlarge ‘Into the realm of God’
Jordan Opp/Inland 360
Flerchinger's icons are part of the current show at the Blue Mountain Artisans Guild Arts Center in Pomeroy.

The icons she creates, with only a few exceptions, are for loved ones. She painted St. Raphael, God’s messenger for healing, for a friend who was very ill. Her favorite, Our Lady of Tenderness — or the Theotokos, in Greek — was made for the ladies of her parish, Holy Rosary Catholic Church, in Pomeroy. The largest icon she’s painted, a 3-foot-high depiction of Jesus called The Divine Mercy, is displayed at the church.

Flerchinger, a 53-year Pomeroy resident, was born in Lewiston and grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. She returned to the area in 1969, when she met her husband, Steve.

Her usual media, when she’s not painting icons, are oil and acrylic paints, and her subjects are animals like horses, elk and deer; old cars; and, occasionally, portraits.

The first icon-painting class she took, in 2018, was a gift from members of her parish when she retired as director of religious education at Holy Rosary. Since then, she’s participated in two workshops a year, at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood and Immaculate Heart Retreat Center in Spokane.

The Rev. Damian Higgins, abbot at Holy Transfiguration Monastery in northern California, teaches the classes of about 10-15 students, Flerchinger said, walking students through the process of creating icons using natural materials and explaining how — and why — they are painted the way they are.
For example, Flerchinger said, she learned no shadows are visible in an icon image, because “the light comes from within,” as if generated by the figure being depicted.

“(Higgins will) say, ‘This person is in heaven, and they’re looking at you,’ ” she said.

Viewers who look closely at an icon can see that perspective in the way subjects are illuminated.

“When the light hits their hands, it hits like it’s coming out of their face,” she said.

click to enlarge ‘Into the realm of God’
Jordan Opp/Inland 360
Jesus Christ, "Good Shepherd Left The 100 To Find The One," painted by Mary Flerchinger.
The icons are painted on wood panels made from heartwood, never the edge, Flerchinger explained. The board is spread with rabbit-skin glue (yes, it’s made from rabbits) onto which a piece of pure linen is stretched, topped with 10 layers of marble-dust gesso. The image to be painted is transferred onto the board, and lines are marked with an etching tool so the artist knows where to lay down the paint.

Gold leaf is applied before the icon is painted, typically for the halo around a figure’s head. Then color is added, made of natural pigments from the earth mixed with water, a little bit of vinegar and egg yolk. An egg yolk wash sets the color when the icon is complete, then it’s sealed with beeswax.

There’s meaning to every step, Flerchinger said, including near the beginning of the process when the whole board is painted a beige-brown color representing the chaos that existed before God brought light to the world.

“In the chaos, we find our lines and we start putting the color down,” she said.

Layers of pigment are applied to create the subject’s visage and garments, and “every color means something.”

Red symbolizes Jesus’ divinity, she said, and his blue cloak represents his incarnation, or taking on human form. A gold sash shows his kingship.

The Virgin Mary’s garments are in reverse, with blue undergarments for her humanity and a red cloak for the divinity that came to her through Jesus.

St. Lydia discovered she could make a purple dye from snails, and she built a successful business selling  her uniquely-hued cloth to wealthy clients. She was the first person the apostle Paul converted to Christianity and typically is depicted wearing purple.

Higgins relates the history of the saints being painted while the students work, blending technical instruction with biblical teaching.

“He tells the stories, and then you put the paint down,” Flerchinger said. “I knew the stories of saints, but this — you almost live it.”

Stone (she/her) can be reached at mstone@inland360.com.


“Spring/ICONS/Back in the Day”

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays through April 30.
click to enlarge ‘Into the realm of God’
Jordan Opp/Inland 360
Cecilia, patron saint of artists and musicians, painted by Mary Flerchinger.

Where: Blue Mountain Artisans Guild Art Center, 745 Main St., Pomeroy.

Cost: Free admission.

Of note: Exhibits include spring-themed paintings by guild members, a collection of local memorabilia dating back to the 1950s and icons painted by Mary Flerchinger.


Mary Flerchinger was one of five volunteers who started the Blue Mountain Artisans Guild in 2010.

The group didn’t have a gallery at the time, instead showing art at the high school, parks and cafes. The Shepherd Foundation — established by area farmers Helen and Harold Shepherd — bought the guild its original space in downtown Pomeroy, a brick building with wood floors, high ceilings and stained glass window accents. Two years later the Shepherd Foundation and Walla Walla-based Blue Mountain Community Foundation helped the group purchase the building next door, and the two spaces were joined, creating the current gallery.

Guild members pay $20 a year, with the 60-70 members split between donor-only and those who also display their art. The guild doesn’t charge a commission on art sold there, allowing creators to keep the full price.

Flerchinger writes grants, applying to organizations that fund the arts, for operating money, and members keep the building open.

“All of us are volunteers,” she said. “We just want to bring beauty to the community.”

Themes for the gallery’s typical six shows a year often are seasonal and also include student art and a “Man Cave” exhibit, during which area farmers and other men share their work.

The guild has a kiln, set up in a separate space behind the main building, for use by members who create pottery.

More information is at pomeroybmag.com.