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A man and a masterpiece: Assumption Abbey’s Kouba creates art as self-taught painter

Press Photo by Katherine Lymn Assumption Abbey Brother Llewellyn Kouba discusses his intricate icon painting titled “Passing the Gift of Creativity” at the Abbey’s dining hall on Thursday.

RICHARDTON — Brother Llewellyn Kouba calls his studio a “jungle.”

“It’s my space,” he says.

The tropical studio is full of signs of Kouba’s many hobbies: an exotic flower collection, materials for pottery, painting props. The bird in a hanging cage and fish tank only add to the argument that there’s no way you’re in Richardton. The “jungle” is the brother’s studio at the Assumption Abbey, where Kouba has lived 40 years.

The self-taught painter is much more than that — he sees and creates art in every form, from pottery to tile to intricate icon paintings.

Icon paintings are characterized more from the process of painting them than what they look like — the paint is made by the artist, and the process includes praying along the way.

“You say prayers with it, that’s what makes it an icon,” Kouba said.

The process of painting an icon takes a kitchen — different steps in the painting require egg, linseed, water and wine — or, when in Russia, vodka. Time is a big ingredient, too: Kouba spent two years on his masterpiece “Passing the Gift of Creativity.”

The painting is full of religious symbolism that one can tell Kouba thought about for a while before putting brush to canvas. But the piece has a taste of Kouba’s own personal life, too — like the peacock that reminds him of the birds on his farm growing up in Regent, or the cat that represents a beloved Abbey pet that’s passed on.

Abbot Brian Wangler said Kouba brings both beauty and creativity to the Abbey — plus stuff it can sell.

Kouba’s pottery is featured in the gift shop at the Abbey.

“People like that, you know, they like buying something made here,” Wangler said, “especially something artistic that they can use to somehow enhance their own home.”

Soft-spoken, Kouba’s passion shows when he explains the process of grinding pigment for an icon painting, or how he decided to place the figures on his 48-by-96 inch, three-panel masterpiece.

“He has many talents,” Wangler said.

Marlene Kouba, Llewellyn’s aunt, said he’s the only painter she knows of in that branch of the family. She said he picked it up in high school and has been expanding his talents ever since.

“He never was a farmer so he went this direction,” she said.

The brother has an exotic garden of flowers, many he got from “trading” with other like-minded collectors.

“Many people visited or some know about it and they come to visit it and other people just sort of discover it,” Wangler said of the indoor garden.

Kouba spends most of his time in his “jungle,” except when he’s on phone duty or mowing the lawn over the summer.

“Passing the Gift” now sits in the dining hall for the monks to see daily.

“I think that’s his greatest work,” Wangler said, “so far anyway.”