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Female icon painter helps bring people closer to God

Cindy Ng is using an ancient tradition to help the Catholics of Hong Kong
Female icon painter helps bring people closer to God

Cindy Ng, the first Catholic woman icon painter in Hong Kong, with her icon and a book that she is translating into Chinese. (ucanews.com photo)

Published: November 10, 2016 10:45 AM GMT
Updated: November 10, 2016 10:49 AM GMT

People think that Christian icon painting is the preserve of male painters and that only Orthodox Christians can create a good icon. But in Hong Kong Catholic diocese, a female icon painter, Cindy Ng has decided to set the record straight.

"The Orthodox Church accepts woman painters. In fact, I am in their internal Facebook group and they sometimes invite me to join their liturgy talks and share my work with them," said Ng.

Gender is not an issue, but the painters must be Christian, said Reverend Chan of the Lutheran Church who researches ancient Christianity and icons.

"If a Buddhist or a non-believer paints the same image, it cannot be called an icon or a Christian painting as it contains no spirituality in the image. They are just imitating an icon," the pastor said.


A group of young Christians draw icons under the instruction of Cindy Ng, the first Catholic woman icon painter in Hong Kong in August, 2016. (ucanews.com photo)


Teacher turns icon painter

Ng is a former schoolteacher. It was when she studied for a master’s degree in fine arts education in 2005 that she became interested in religious art and started to study icons.

Ng drew her first icon of Magdalene Canossa in 2007 and began giving talks and  teaching people how to use the icons for prayer and meditation. 

In order to become Hong Kong's first female icon painter, she read a lot of scripture and prayed continuously. It subtly changed Ng’s life. It helped her come back from a serious hand injury sustained in 2007.

"I did not like to show my weakness to others after I was injured. But now I have the courage to share it with others, particularly with patients with chronic illness, to let them know how I relied on my faith," she said.

Her teachers, Lino Wong Wing-kuen, a Hong Kong Catholic icon painter who lives in Italy, and Sister Esther Pollak, who comes to Hong Kong every year for her annual icon workshop, had a big impact on her. She also receives instructions from Orthodox and Protestant pastors.

"I feel acceptance and communion with the help of pastors from three Christian churches," Ng said. "They make me understand that icon painting is not just for oneself but also for a prayer tool for others," she added.


Spirituality in painting

It is a challenge to draw icons while strictly following a tradition.

"It is not because we are old-fashioned. The aim is to pursue the Truth, Love and the goodness of God. It is a way to pass on our faith," Ng said.

It takes at least one and a half months to do one painting as the painter has to understand their audience, spend time in prayer and research the saint’s life and spiritual views.

In a commercialized city like Hong Kong, it is always hard for artists to make a decent living. It is the same for new icon painters like Ng.

"I feel blessed for having many Catholics supporting me by helping me buy expensive paints and drawing boards that have to be ordered from abroad," she said.

"They are very professional paints and the weather in Hong Kong is different from where they were manufactured," she added.

Recently, Ng finished a Chinese translation of the book, Meditations with Icons for Children and the Young at Heart. Pastors from three Christian churches helped write the preface proof read the copy.

I hope the book can contribute to Christian unity and lead children and young people towards God, she said.

"Hong Kong people live stressful lives without much chance to be quiet. Icon meditation is something that can help one calm down quickly by looking at God. It is also a self-healing practice when used with other tools like music, writing and dancing," she said.

"I think this particularly fits with the youth who like imagination and soul searching at their age," she said.

In May, when Ng led an icon meditation gathering, a young participant shared that he used to think he could conquer his problems using the skills he learned "but now, from the icon, I can feel God’s presence and it is He who is leading me. It gives me motivation to bring God’s love to people around me and to evangelize."


Cindy Ng leads a group of young Christian in prayer before starting their icon painting lesson during a Taize gathering in August 2016. Prayer is part of the tradition of icon painting. (ucanews.com photo)


Passing on faith

Seeing people change encourages Ng to draw more. "If someone wants to learn icon painting, I am very willing to share my knowledge as I also received it free from my teachers. I would like to see more people become workers for God," she said.

The scarcity of icon painters in Hong Kong has brought many pragmatic questions to Ng. Someone once asked her if this profession can "make big money" or help them "become famous."

"The basic principle of being an icon painter is to realize it is not for oneself and not for fame. One has to empty oneself in the service so that the Holy Spirit can get into one’s heart and guide us to create a fine prayer tool," Ng said.

"There is no personal style in icon painting. No matter the design, the colors, gestures or symbol of the faith, there are very strict and high standards so that people can feel the goodness of God through the painting," she added.

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