Teaching Icon Painting to Prisoners

by Anneli Ojanpera

I was sick and you came to visit me, I was in prison and you came to be with me.

– Mt 25:36

I worked as a psychiatric nurse for 37 years, the last 24years at the Old Vaasa Hospital, a criminal-psychiatric hospital established by the State of Finland. Here there are125 patients, including murderers, drug users, alcoholics, and people with multiple problems. The last six years I was a leader icon and art therapy groups.

I suggested using icon painting as a form of therapy to the chief professor of the hospital. Once the idea was accepted, I was given a free hand in designing the programs so long as it stayed within the limits of the curing principle of the hospital — “limiting love, guarded freedom, tender violence,” the professor’s motto.

After having done all the preparations needed, our initial group of three patients began to work, meeting three or four times monthly, with each session lasting for three hours. We continued together for one year. Participants received many supportive comments from friends and heard much appreciation for their growing skill in painting. Others became interested in joining our group — suddenly the number of the painters increased to seven with more standing in the queue.

Though the activity increased, the time and frequency of the sessions stayed the same. Some of the participants painted only one icon, but there were those who painted as many as seven. Many gave their first icon to someone close to them. Some painted in this group for three years.

During the work we sometimes discussed religion, but there were no restraints on what we might discuss — anything from world politics to astronomy. However most of the time we were quiet. In general, participants preferred a room where they could enjoy the peace of silence and concentrate on their own thoughts.

To an outsider, it would have been a very surprising sight — someone with a history of violence very carefully painting the face of Christ, or a man who had committed serious crimes standing reverently before an image of the Mother of God.

Little by little one could notice positive changes among the icon painters: They began to dress better, to pay more attention to the other people; they became more open to each other within the group; they started to encourage each other. Someone new to the group would be consoled by such words as, “It was hard for all of us in the beginning.”

When a new icon was finished, we admired it together. Many were surprised and even embarrassed with what they had achieved: “Was I really able to paint this?” The painters were happy to take their icons into their living quarters to show to the other patients and staff. Some began to participate more actively the religious services arranged by the priest of the hospital. Many became more interested in religious questions.

Every summer we made a real pilgrimage to the Monastery of New Valamo in Heinvesi. Afterward, these journeys were discussed often and at great length.

Every December there was a feast arranged in the hospital, with the priest of the Orthodox parish coming to bless icons painted during the year. He and the chaplain of the hospital gave untiring support to my work. Our group also visited icon exhibitions and finally we organized an exhibition of our own icons and art.

So many different things and events have happened in these six years — many joyful days, but also sorrow was often present. However the most distinctive feeling was gratitude to be able to do this work. I often remember the words of Mother Theresa: “When everything is well, joy lights up the face.”

Though I am now retired, the icon painting therapy project continues. During the two years before my departure, I was able to prepare a successor. She had been painting with our group and now is the leader. Sometimes I visit my painting group, as the members wished when I retired.

Anneli Ojanpera lives in Vhkyr, Finland. The translation of her report is by the iconographer Alexander Wikstrom, who teaches at the New Valamo Lay Academy.