Former Lackawanna County police chief spends retirement indulging passion for art, pursues painting of icons
Plenty of people throughout the Abingtons know Wesley Dunn from his many years keeping the streets safe, first as the police chief of South Abington Township, then Clarks Summit, Lackawanna County.
What they may not have known is that crime fighting wasn't the chief's only talent. Turns out, he was also quite adept with a paint brush.
Now 81, the Clarks Summit resident has spent his retirement indulging his passion for art. For the last four years, Dunn has been focusing the bulk of his energies on painting icons, the ethereal representations of Jesus, the saints and other sacred Christian figures that are hugely important in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. (Orthodox Christmas is Tuesday.)
Dunn's interest in this unique and spiritual art form came a few years back, when the lifelong Methodist began attending services at St. Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church in West Scranton with his wife, Marcia.
"I said to my wife, 'You know, we all pray to the same God, so I'll just start going to church with you,' " Dunn said.
In time, he became a fixture at the church, to the point where he was "one of the best halupki makers down there," he said with a laugh.
The church's icons fascinated him, and the more he studied them, the more he wanted to learn the process behind them.
Fortuitously, he came across a sign advertising iconography classes taught by local artist Nina Kouznetsov during a trip to A.C. Moore around Christmas 2009.
The first icon he painted was of St. Michael. After he finished it, he thought, "This is pretty neat, I'll keep going."
Since then, he's completed four other icons - Theotokos and Child, i.e. Mary and Baby Jesus; Christ the Good Shepherd; an interpretation of the Holy Cross; and a guardian angel.
"Each one I do now has a little more to it. They're time consuming. But it's rewarding," said Dunn, who, in addition to painting icons, does wildlife art.
The process of completing an icon is quite painstaking. Dunn estimates he spends roughly 40 to 50 hours on each one.
The hardwood boards he works on come from Eastern Europe. They're coated with several layers of rabbit hide glue, then a piece of linen is stretched over them. Then comes more glue, then eight to 10 coats of white gesso.
To get the pattern of the icon on the board, Dunn uses carbon paper. "It looks almost like a coloring book page," he said.
He etches lines into the gesso with a red clay mixture. When the clay is applied for the halo, he lets it dry, then sands it, then burnishes it with a smooth stone or burnishing tool. Real gold, warmed with Dunn's breath, is applied to the halo.
Once the halo is complete, Dunn uses an egg tempera to paint several layers of "floats" over the icon that give it depth and dimension.
He adds highlights, then another float to make the icon more translucent. The framing around the icon achieves its marble-like look through a process called puddling.
The final touch is an oil-based coating applied to protect the icon.
"And you can't sign it. Because Nina says that when you're doing an icon, you're not doing it, God is doing it," Dunn said. "So, you can't take credit for it."
Dunn has had the icons appraised at around $700 each, but he has no plans to sell them.
He said his stepson literally had tears coming down his cheeks the first time he saw one.
"He said, 'Pops, could I have that?' I said, 'Well, I'll mark on the back that you're to get it when I go toes up,'" Dunn said with a laugh.
Dunn's friend, Charlie Warholak, found himself struck by the icons during a recent visit to Dunn's home.
"I said, 'Oh my goodness, this is art. This is really neat,' " said Warholak, who also attends St. Michael. "Wes doesn't really let on that he does this stuff."
Early art interest
A West Scranton native, Dunn spent most of his childhood in Clarks Summit, and it was then that he first developed a love for drawing and art.
While serving with the Army in West Germany at the end of the Korean War, he did pencil and charcoal sketches for his buddies that they would send home as presents for their wives and girlfriends.
"And I didn't charge them for it. It was just for the fun of doing it," Dunn said. "It gave me a chance to practice."
Upon leaving the service, Dunn had several jobs before landing in law enforcement. He served as South Abington Township's police chief from 1965-91, and as Clarks Summit's chief from 1991-94. His career came to an end when he slipped on some ice and broke his back.
"I loved (being a cop). And I was good at it," he said. "It's the variety of not knowing what's going to come next, and trying to be smarter than the average bear.
"I still have people who I see on the street tell me, 'Boy, do we miss you.' "
He never abandoned his artistic pursuits. To supplement his income during those years, Dunn painted signs, designed logos and hand-lettered vehicles, including South Abington's first two patrol cars.
After leaving law enforcement, Dunn served as mayor of Clarks Summit for a couple of years, then worked as an aide to former U.S. Rep. Chris Carney. He also became a licensed auctioneer, and estimates he helped local charities raise several hundred thousand dollars over the years.
Today, he keeps plenty busy through daily crossword puzzles, exercising and, of course, his art.
"You have to challenge the mind," he said. "It keeps you young."