ICONS in Transformation

An Exhibit of Contemporary Art Inspired by Traditional Icons
Works by Artist Ludmila Pawlowska

Please join us for the Opening Reception
Sunday, January 28  |  3 pm

Meet the artist, tour the exhibit, and enjoy refreshments.
Please RSVP to info@augustana.com

This traveling exhibit, ICONS in Transformation, has toured churches, cathedrals, and museums in both Europe and the United States. Over 150,000 people in the U.S. have viewed the exhibit. Augustana Lutheran Church welcomes the acclaimed abstract expressionist artist, Ludmila Pawlowska, along with over 150 pieces of her artwork. Inspired by traditional Russian icons, Ludmila’s work provides a rare opportunity to trace her contemporary vision and its transformative power. The various techniques she uses to produce this stunning imagery add to the power of the art. This exhibit features her reimagined icons, along with traditional Russian icons from the Vassilevsky Monastery, located northeast of Moscow.

Ludmila Pawlowska was born in exile. When Joseph Stalin took power in Russia in the 1920s, he started pushing troublesome people — teachers, artists, intellectuals, ethnic groups — far away from the country’s center of power. Everyone knows about the gulags in Siberia, but that wasn’t the only place of exile in the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan, the biggest and most remote of the “stans,” was another. Ludmila’s Kazak home, the city of Karaganda, was hundreds of miles from any other urban area.

It was a mid-sized city — about a million population today — and it was full of highly educated exiles, culture and good schools, where teachers spotted her early as a born artist. Her family had been shattered by the revolution. Her grandfather was deported to Siberia in 1936, when her father was two years old. Her uncles were taken by the state, separated and scattered across the nation to homes for children of state enemies. The Stalin era ended when he died in 1953. Soon, Nikita Kruschev opened the gulags, and her grandfather was free — but not free to leave Siberia. Her father was a dissident, too — always limited by his refusal to join the Communist Party. She and her father weren’t close — but her mother was her soul mate. And art was her refuge.

Ludmila (“Just call me Mila,” she says, “it’s easier”) was considered a child prodigy. She still has newspaper clippings written about her in the elementary school years. At 15, she left her beloved mother and went to Moscow. Socialist Realism was the party-enforced painting style of the day, but the academies were good, and Mila’s passion for art never flagged. She worked her way into textile design and magazine illustration. Mila met Jan Lech — an early-music specialist and lutenist who had moved into the business side of the arts — and they started dreaming of a rural life together. They wanted to start a center where artists and art-lovers could come together, and Jan knew an area in Sweden that would be perfect. Twenty years ago, they left Russia. For the first time, Mila was free to become the artist she was born to be. Her early work in Sweden was all about the natural beauty she saw around her: florals and landscapes, somewhere between realistic and abstract and influenced by her work in textiles.

After a few years, her mother was able to come for an extended visit. A few months into the visit, she had a massive stroke and died. Mila’s life changed overnight. In her heart and in her painting, she began a spiritual journey. She traveled, looking for answers. In Russian monasteries — opened up by growing political liberalism — she found ancient wisdom and contemporary icons painted in the classical style. “The icons were like a window to God,” she says. Today, she’s an abstract expressionist, making art that’s more about her heart than her eye — about what she senses all around her, about what has come to her through those classical windows and been incorporated into her work. She carved letters to her mother in her paintings as a heavily textured, almost sculptural style evolved. Her paintings helped her understand her feelings. “I knew my mother surrounded me and could hear me. She could read my letters to her. After every image was done, I felt a sense of relief. I was finding my own way to God. All the art over these last years has been a spiritual journey.”

Traditional and modern icons are sometimes described as “windows to heaven” or a “showing forth of God.” The icon’s purpose is not to illustrate or decorate, but to represent the divine in a way that beckons the viewer. Traditional icons are painted with a realism that’s loaded with abstraction. Exaggerated large eyes suggest spiritual depth. For 1500 years strict canons of iconography and traditional skills have carefully preserved traditional iconography. Western influence (realism, sentimentality, and depicting humanity in the here and now) threatened iconography. But the 20th century saw a surge in icon appreciation. Henri Matisse was one of the first to clearly appreciate the Russian icon’s significance in the development of contemporary art. And among the Orthodox, especially since the 1950s, an increase in commissioning traditional icons grew. Ludmila takes her motto for this exhibit from words of Matisse, after his first visit to Moscow, “Yesterday I saw a collection of old Russian icons. This is truly great art. I am quite taken by iconic paintings. I have only one thought in my head, and now we run, day in and day out, to monasteries, churches, and the various collections. I am in love with their touching simplicity… The artist’s soul emerges in these icons like a mystical flower. It is through them that we should learn to understand art. I have seen artwork from the churches of many different countries, but nowhere have I met such powerful expression, such a feeling of mystery… everywhere the same luminosity and devotion…”

Icons are most popular in Orthodox churches where they form a part of religious worship. They are often kissed or have candles lit in front of them as a sign of respect. Prayer with icons is an ancient practice that involves keeping our eyes wide open and taking into our heart what the image visually communicates. We focus not on what is seen in the icon, but rather what is seen through it. When worshipers offer prayers in front of an icon, they are not praying to the painting or image itself. They are using the icon as a means of directing their prayer towards God. Look at the icon as you pray. See it as a point of connection with Jesus. Try extending your hands and turning your palms upward, a gesture both of openness to God’s grace and the gift of your hands to God.


  • Eyes – In classical icons, the eyes are exaggerated and more luminous than in life. In Mila’s art, eyes, the window of the soul, often dominate.
  • Blue – The color of the sky. In traditional icons blue symbolizes heaven.
  • Gold — Mila uses gold leaf producing a lustrous glow. Traditional icon painters do as well.
  • Red – Mila’s reds, deep and rich, symbolize passion.
  • Cutouts – Sometimes Mila plunges a saw blade right though her pieces and cuts out spirals, crosses, and other shapes. They invite the viewer to look within the piece. “We all have something inside,” she says, “We’re all on a spiritual journey.” Sometimes looking at art, and within art, can take a viewer miles down that road.
  • Texture – Mila’s process starts with special, high-quality plywood from a Swedish manufacturer. She adds layers of gesso (a mix of glue, chalk, and white pigment) as a ground, and builds up texture with pastes, fabric and thick paints.
  • Surface Light – Mila lavishes love on her surfaces. She often uses special metallic paints. They glitter in strong light and glow in softer light.
  • Stones – Many of the stones implanted in Mila’s work are a special, fossil-rich limestone that is common where she lives. “Stone is timeless and carries the memories of the ages.”
  • The Inspiration – Mila’s show comes with a collection of traditional icons made at monastery workshops in the years since a measure of religious freedom returned to Russia. They will be on display along with her work so you can see the influences for yourself.

Exhibit Details

Augustana Lutheran Church is delighted to host ICONS in Transformation, an exhibit that transforms the mystery and spiritual power of the icon into modern masterpieces of art.

Exhibition Dates
January 28—March 31, 2024

Exhibition Hours
Guided Tours: Sundays Noon to 3 pm
(with the exception of March 17)
Self-Guided Tours: Monday—Thursday Noon to 3 pm
Wednesdays Noon to 6 pm

For private tours or groups over 10, please forward requests to info@augustana.com. Admission to this exhibit is free. Donations are gladly accepted. Works of art are available for purchase with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the mission and ministries of Augustana Lutheran Church.

Learn more about the artist and her art

Click the image below to open the brochure.

Scroll through Ludmila’s Work