Denis Wilson "Bill" Robinson soberly follows a 22-step program.
It’s his regimen to produce sacred icons from natural materials.
Things like egg yolk, ferret urine, powdered marble, vinegar and animal glues go into what the Mesa artist needs to meticulously create religious icons, commonly called the "windows to heaven" because of their rich symbolism and use of light and color to peer into the eternal realm of being.
In his Visions of Holiness studio in his home at Venture Out RV Resort, Robinson produces commissioned icons, retablos and other forms of devotional and liturgical art. Much of his time is spent creating visages of people of the Bible, saints and religious greats, each work the result of careful research and reflection.
Out of a lifetime of traveling the planet, living in many places and nurturing eclectic interests, including art, Robinson has evolved into a respected iconographer whose works can be found in more and more churches, especially in the western U.S. An Episcopalian, he has benefited from an increasing interest in icons in the Episcopal Church.
"Bill’s special gift isn’t ‘painting’ in the usual sense," said the Rev. Steven Ford, interim pastor of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Mesa. "It’s his profound connection to the world of the spirit. His work entails intimate conversations with God and with the saints he depicts, and all of us at St. Mark’s are spiritually enriched by this."
Robinson studied with master iconographer Vladislav Andreyev, a Russian and founder of the Prosopon School of Iconography.
"Each school of icons has its own rules about how an icon is built up," he said. "I have studied like crazy — every book I can get my hands on — and I talk to people."
Earlier this year, Robinson completed his largest and most complicated piece, a more than 6-foot-tall reproduction of the 12th-century San Damiano Cross in a church near Assisi, Italy, a cross that St. Francis is said to have kneeled before when he prayed and received a mandate to bring restoration to the Roman Catholic Church. Robinson spent more than 750 hours creating the cross, whose surface is linen covered with 14 layers of a compound called gesso. It hangs above the sanctuary of St. Cross by the Sea Episcopal Church in Hermosa Beach, Calif.
Robinson was born in 1946 in New Delhi, India, where his father was an officer in the Ghurka Regiment in the Britisharmy. His mother, a painter, worked for the American Red Cross. Robinson grew up in Nebraska, where his mother’s family was in the cattle business. His father spent much of his time in Central America as a food technologist for a corn products company. Robinson, who spent summers working for the Bureau of Land Management, received a degree in political science from Tufts University in Boston, with an eye toward State Department work.
But right out of college, he and his wife, Nancy, moved to New Mexico for graduate work in anthropology.
"It was in New Mexico when I first started doing the kind of artwork I am doing now," Robinson said. "I was introduced to (Los Hermanos Penitentes), the Hispanic brotherhood that goes back to the late 1500s in New Mexico." The Penitentes created many retablos — small paintings on wood or metal that venerate Catholic saints.
"The Penitente brotherhood, in some ways, took the place of the church because they were in a remote, isolated area — separated by thousands of miles from their bishop," he said. "They didn’t have ready access to the sacraments, so the lay brotherhood was able to provide spiritual uplifting and assistance to people in the absence of an active clergy." Their artwork and depictions of saints were prominently displayed and carried in processions and special eventswithout priests. They would be condemned for "penitential excesses," including self-flagellation and binding their bodies to crosses, and subsequently took their practices underground. For more than a century, until 1947, they were not considered part of the Catholic Church.
Robinson worked for many years as a aviation maintenance equipment sales manager in the Middle East and Asia. His job was a casualty of the economic impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, so he turned to his art. First the artist produced an Eastern icon for an Episcopal priest friend in Colorado; then, he got a commission to do the Stations of the Cross for a California church.
"I was able to connect with other parishes, and I started doing commissioned work on a pretty regular basis," he said. With completion of the San Damiano Cross two years ago, business took off.
Each of the 22 steps of creating icons is what he calls a "prayer process."
"The construction of an icon becomes a liturgy, almost as complicated as doing the liturgy of the Eucharist," he said.
Icons, most prominently part of the Orthodox tradition, are used in church liturgies. "They have a liturgical function in decorating the church, although in the Episcopal Church, there is a tremendous amount of renewed interest in the ancient form — and, to a degree, in the Roman Catholic Church," he said.
Robinson said he has mastered the delicate process of applying 23-karat gold leaf to halos of icons, but more than once he has been defied when putting it onto the icons of St. Francis of Assisi. For example, while completing one for a Portland, Ore., church, "St. Francis would not take the gold. I thought, ‘Gosh, this is odd.’ " Each time he tried to apply it, the gossamerlike, microns-wide gold leaf failed to adhere. Robinson surmised that St. Francis, who came from a wealthy, royal Italian family, became intentionally impoverished at a time when the prevailing attitude was that the poor were responsible for their poverty.
"Francis was absolutely opposed to the arrogance of the rich," Robinson said. "It was as if the spirit of Francis was coming through that chunk of wood and saying, ‘Don’t gild me, guy. I don’t want it.’ "