In-between the Icons

Three people in my family of four have AD/HD, and the fourth person has a non-verbal learning disorder in the presence of three very visual people. In seeking help and receiving diagnoses, we have lived in between the psychological images – or “icons” – of diagnostic definitions, while learning that those definitions do not define our personhood. We have lived in between the assumed religious “icons” of what “good” Christians are, knowing that we cannot live up to those images. We are learning what it means to live in the light and not remain in the shadows of reflections.


Isolation, © Kari Lindholm-Johnson

painting of Mary icon

Painting of Mary Icon, © Kari Lindholm-Johnson

Recently I have been introduced to using icons as visual prayer through Paul DeNeui‘s course, “Rethinking Mission: Lessons in Christian Art, History, and Practice.” Our class took a trip to St Gregory the Great Church in Chicago to see the beautiful icon writing of artist in residence Joseph Malham. I continue to contemplate this experience that is helping me look further into the Light. Christian icons are not stopping places but tools to lead one into prayerful seeking of God’s presence. They are visual prayers.

Like many visual artists, I’ll get images in my head that I must paint. Years ago I painted Struggle and Isolation, inspired by images that appeared to me. I have recently begun painting icons (and I say “painting” because I am not using traditional methods of “writing” icons). When I held two of these icon paintings next to the earlier works, I was struck at how they seemed to be speaking to one another. I feel as though the Spirit is whispering peace and grace within the reflective space of these visual conversations. These four pieces are part of what I hope will be a larger show, In-between the Icons.


Struggle, © Kari Lindholm-Johnson

Painting of Icon of Christ Pantokrator

Painting of Icon, Christ Pantocrator, © Kari Lindholm-Johnson

Using art as a tool for visual prayer and visceral expression can be powerful. We have found in art groups at Swedish Covenant Hospital that the very act of doing art can open up discussion and allow people to view and express their feelings in new ways. For instance, throwing paint at a canvas can help people visualize their anger, helping them turn anger from a force “against” into a tool of expression. We have also found that finding and painting colors in shadows can help people enter into places that feel dark and see that the darkness does not overcome the light – that even in shadows there can be color.

I was invited to share from my experience as artist in residence at Swedish Covenant Hospital. I decided to take the risk of sharing these personal paintings and stories in the hope that they would connect with others and generate conversation. Our story with AD/HD includes struggles of disorganization, feelings of isolation, fatigue, anxiety, depression and sometimes writhing in societal boxes that do not fit. It also includes the joys of creativity, humor, serendipity, wonder, and imagination. I decided to share my personal story because I didn’t think it would be fair to name others’ struggles without being willing to name my own. At the same time, it is my hope that sharing this will be a window of grace for others in the camaraderie of the question, “How goes your walk?” – as I know I often stumble along.

When we use art as a meditation tool, we can ask, What do you see? How do you feel? What happens when you make these lines? What happens when you paint this way? We can use art as a prayer. It is in this spirit I offer these pieces to you.

KariKari Lindholm-Johnson (MDiv, North Park Seminary) is an ordained minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church, currently serving as artist in residence at Swedish Covenant Hospital. She has served in various ministry settings, in a pastoral role of local churches and chaplain in various Covenant institutions. Kari is married to Timothy “Yak” Johnson. They have two children, Gabriel and Chloe. View more of her art at

Kari Lindholm-Johnson


  1. Kari,

    Thank you for sharing your story and your art! I actually had a chance to meet with Joseph Malham a few years ago to do research for an art project I incorporated into my final research paper for a church history class at NPTS. (I created 3 modern day iconic images.)

    Just curious, can you talk a bit more about your word choice of “painting” vs. “writing?” I’m assuming that you’re not using the specific paint colors/types, etc. – but didn’t want to assume.

    • Dear Nilwona,

      I chose to use the term “painting” instead of “writing” because I didn’t use the icon methodology of painting on a poplar panel, then adding rabbit skin glue, canvas, and 12 layers of gesso, then using gold leaf and egg tempera. I wanted to be respectful of that process by not claiming that I had written an icon. I did, however, use the technique of going from dark to light, doing the underpainting in red iron oxide and working out toward the light, and I did try to use similar colors to what might have been used even though I was using acrylic and oil paint (realizing, though, that there is a variety of materials that icon writers use that do include acrylics, oils, egg tempera, encaustics, etc). I must admit that I ventured into it more to explore the shapes and expression of the forms and interplay of color. However, to my amazement, the exploration of shapes and forms did lead me into a prayerful response. I felt as though the Spirit was breathing into my experience of those shapes and forms. As I was being attentive to the expressions in the icon of Mary and the icon of Christ as Pantocrator, I felt as though the forms did become a means of prayer and that I had new eyes to the Spirit’s response to me and also grace extended to my experience of some past painting expressions. To perhaps explain it better, it seemed somewhat akin to if I were doing a literary analysis of a prayer, to examine the words and structure of the writing, but then was drawn into the actual prayer itself and the Spirit’s movement in the prayer.
      I am interested in your experience of creating 3 modern day iconic images for your final research paper and wondering if you had a similar experience. Did that assignment end up feeling like a prayer for you?

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