by Michael Owen Jones

Born in November 1935, Edward Hartley is a semi-retired physician and self-taught icon painter who likes to think of himself as "eccentric." Raised in Nova Scotia, he was brought up Anglican. "I started painting icons, let's see, married in '67, started painting in '68. It's just a hobby. We [his wife and he and their three children] became Orthodox in '71 and we joined the OCA, the Orthodox Church of America, daughter of the Russian church." Why convert? "Because of the beauty and the truth, that's a good way to put it. We were led to Orthodoxy through the icons. And through our reading."

With the help of a Greek immigrant, he built a chapel in 1976 in the backyard of his home in Surrey across the Frazer River from Vancouver, B. C. Constructed of concrete blocks, it is painted silver. Laminated cedar beams support the omega-shaped roof. In 1991 Ed built a raised, covered patio next to the chapel, the columns made of cardboard tubes from the local paper mill and painted blue (like the trim of his house). He calls it the Mini-Parthenon.

Ed prepared a 14-page booklet about his chapel. It describes the building, notable icons, and gifts from friends and acquaintances. It also includes brief vignettes along with scriptural passages. It reads much like he talked during atour. For instance, Ed pointed to a toy mouse in the right-hand corner above the door frame inside the porch, and a stuffed bird in the left corner. He said, "We have a church mouse, of course, and a little robin. It says in the Psalms the sparrow found herself a house and the swallow a nest where she lay her young. We didn't have a sparrow or a swallow so we came up with a robin." A passage in his booklet reads, "Notice the mouse above the entrance door, and the robin, given by Sheila Kirkwood. 'Yea, the sparrow hath found her an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God' (Psalm 84:3)."

One inside wall of the porch boasts a stained glass window donated by Bill Manley, whose mother brought it from England many years before. Filling the west end is a window with a cross in the center that was made, writes Ed, "by Allan Haggerty in memory of his daughter, Kathleen, who passed away at age five in 1979. May she be with those innocent ones 'which follow the Lamb withersoever He goeth' (Relevation 14:4)." When Ed showed me the window, saying it was made by a man in Winnipeg in memory of his little girl, he concluded, "Everything [in the chapel] sort of has a little story."

Inside the chapel icons are everywhere. Large ones about three feet high adorn the walls, their centers a little above eye level. Smaller icons hang above these. A frieze around the nave just below the ceiling consists of small, square paintings on thick glass blocks. "And we have icons, of course, even on the ceiling. We have more icons [about 500 that he has painted] than any church in North America." Ed laughed as he said this. He has stored many others in racks in the sanctuary and in the basement of his house where he paints.

Why do all this? "Uhhhh, a bit of uh, I hope, I hope a bit of healthy insanity, you have to be a little bit insane to, uh, uh, you have to be a little bit insane to be Christian in the first place, and a lot insane to be Orthodox." Ed chuckled. "But we, I paint icons as a hobby, so we had the idea--there was a fellow in Victoria once had converted his backyard, uh, garage into a chapel. That's where I got the idea from. And then, I always had the idea of building one, but didn't have much carpentry ability. . . . We met, uh, a Greek fellow we know for years that was out of work, Nick the Greek, so I told him my idea and a couple of days later he was over with the plans." In regard to painting, he said, "I used to fiddle around a little bit with paints when I was a kid, you know, a few landscapes and such. And I'm self-taught, which is evident from the quality of the pictures, but we have fun." He chuckled. "I always say I enjoy my paintings even if nobody else does." For the most part he uses water tempura, often on cardboard, and varnishes the icon. A retired neighbor haunts garage sales to find him frames.

Later Ed gave my wife and me one of his paintings, a portrait of Christ. The words "He Who Is" are in Christ's halo with "Ruler" to the left of the head and "of All" to the right. "So if you have room in your luggage you can take an icon back, you see; then you can say you have an original Hartley icon. It won't be worth anything if it ever is for about 50 years until after I'm gone," he said, laughing, "but you can enjoy it." By receiving it, my wife and I will remember him, he said. "And maybe some day we'll hop in the car and drive to California." He chuckled. "Somebody'll be knocking at your door. . . ."

Iconography brought Ed Hartley, the Episcopalian, to "the beauty and the truth" of Orthodoxy. As he said, "There's a lot of theology in one picture" and "you learn a lot painting icons, you read the stories. . . . The icons really make the saints real, you know, in a way. They are real, and they are here, but the icons bring it home." As he surveys his works on the walls of the chapel, in racks behind the iconostasis, and on shelves in the basement of his house, he becomes caught up in their sensory qualities. "It's quite, I think it's one of my better ones," he said in reference to his painting of Christ's burial which is carried in procession around the church on Good Friday. "It's hard to judge your own work, but it's certainly a beautiful icon. It's the, uh, the colors are very rich."

Besides painting nearly 500 icons, Ed has constructed a chapel to house them and to serve the spiritual needs of himself, his family, and 60 other people. Holding their infant granddaughter, his wife, Vivian, said, "Ed brings her in almost every day and talks to her about the church and the icons. You and Grandpa visit the church together, don't you?" Ed displays items on window ledges, cabinet tops, door frames, and hanging from the ceiling that have been donated by friends and parishioners. "Once you start something like this you'd be amazed what people bring you." Later, pointing to a star in the ceiling of the nave that someone had given him, he said, "Everything has a little, sort of a little story attached to it, a little memory." In sum, Ed Hartley has created an environment that is at once a place of worship, a gallery of art, and a museum of memories. The space is both personal and communal, a place for private reflection and social interaction.

(For more information see Michael Owen Jones, "Icon Painters in Western Canada and the Conundrums of Classification: Who Creates Folk Art, When, and Why?" In The Icon in Canada, ed. Robert B. Klymasz , pp. 7-34. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1996.)

return to the main page