Making mandalas has taught me that it is good to be centered and it is needful to have boundaries. Making mandalas has shown me how things grow. I have seen that
1. You must start from somewhere. Anywhere. Preferably the center. But anywhere. You must start.
2. It is perfect to be imperfect. Even more, it is beautiful.
3. What seems like not much in the beginning may add up to something good, even remarkable, in the end–if you persevere.
4. It is not helpful to judge until a piece is finished. And even then it is not good to judge too much. Or maybe I should just go all the way and do as Jesus said: “Judge not. . . .”
5. Repetition of the same simple thing may become beautiful.
6. When you work from the center the piece maintains a measure of wholeness at every stage. As the circle grows it becomes more complex and interesting it gains depth.
7. Things that seem not to go together can go together if you let them and help them. This is called integration. There is integrity in that.
8. Surprises stand out in the context of a consistent pattern.
9. Many pieces go through an unattractive adolescent period. Don’t give up. Sometimes the ugliest adolescence develops into the most beautiful and unique maturity.
10. Expectations and preconceptions are often unhelpful. To create a piece that is alive one must be open to what it is and what it is becoming, and then help it to become that.
11. Courage is essential to creation.
Here is a poem I found in a list of words I made out of letters of the word “refrigerator.”
To get fire: rare.
To free fire: rarer.
To err: oft.
Tiger at gate: go
Forge art or fear.
Great gift after grief.
I sometimes fear that too much struggle in the creation of a work will violate its purity and integrity. Time and experience have shown me, however, that each artwork has its own story and character, and that a piece born smoothly is not necessarily better than one over which I have worried. Sometimes it takes me a long time to learn to like a work simply because it is so different from my expectation, unlike anything else I have made. Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, writes “We must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it. That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular, and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.
In Queen of the Heart, the struggle for art and love unite. I created the piece in 2009, near the end (of course I did not know that then!) of a four-year period of living alone without an intimate partner. During that time I encountered many individuals who were cynical about the possibility of loving relationships; I myself sometimes struggled to keep my faith. This mandala incorporates an earlier collage which I had to seriously refashion in order to create an aesthetic harmony in the piece. It also incorporates texts that encouraged me to trust love, even in its winter; those include a stream of consciousness meditation on excerpts of 1 Corinthians 13, part of an e. e. cummings poem:
love is the voice under all silences,/the hope which has no opposite in fear;/the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:/the truth more first than sun more last than star
and the important words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves, a book that has become like a bible to me. Wisely she writes: “Three things differentiate living from the soul versus living from ego only. They are: the ability to sense and learn new ways, the tenacity to ride a rough road, and the patience to learn deep love over time.”
Shortly after my partner, Steve O’Keefe, and I moved to Staunton, Virginia, in May, 2010, we discovered an abandoned cemetery behind a campus of old institutional brick buildings that once served as a state prison. The graves, set in straight rows, are each marked with upright concrete slabs. Over time the headstones have assumed various angles of repose, and are textured with moss and erosion. Remarkably they carry no other distinguishing symbol–not a name, not a number.
Although I would probably not have wished to associate with any of these souls in life, I nonetheless felt a “nagging compassion” for them in their oblivion. Several years ago, in an exchange of e-mails with a friend, I wrote, “It is interesting and mysterious to me, even strange, that we seem to have duties to the dead, and that in performing them something in ourselves may be completed and put at rest.”
Recently I returned to the cemetery with my friend, Lisa Ayres, a Louisiana artist, and we photographed the site. This small mandala, Benedictus, incorporates pieces of my photo of a section of the burial ground. The artwork embodies my consideration of human beings anonymously buried, as was Mozart, and the constancy of nature, in particular the trees standing over the forgotten ones in their rest.
My upbringing, along with a certain aspect of my nature, occasionally lead me to question why I do what I do, which is Make Art. On the face of it, a wood block with bits of paper glued to it seems useless, even to me. Certainly it would seem, although pretty, also pretty useless to the people who reared and educated me. Even now, some of the people who visit my booth at art shows must surely go away with that opinion when they pick up the block and discover that it does not even open; it is not a box. Although a box is not a complex technology, it does have a purpose–to hold things, to organize. If I were to make a box and make it large enough, it could hold an entire collection of useless things–even my collaged blocks–and that would make it useful, but with some futility to its usefulness.
And it’s not far, then, to the question, “If I make useless things, am I useful?”
I am going to abandon this line of questioning before I get mired in it because it is impractical in its practicality. Art, which masquerades as a materiality, is much more than that. So, frankly, are we humans, whether or not we are lovers or makers of art. The question “What’s the use?”, so delightfully musically elaborated upon in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, is too small for who we are. What we love is what we love, often for no good reason, or at least none that we
can articulate. Furthermore, what cheers and encourages us in life–even makes it worth living–can often be proved by some scheme of logic to be gratuitous. One could even say that life itself is gratuitous. But we are here anyway, and that is what we must deal with–practically. And here, also, is this collaged block.
Perhaps the puzzled visitors to my art booth, upon discovering the block does not open, are not really asking “What’s the use?” but “How shall I relate to this thing? How does it fit into my life.”
That is a personal question. I can’t answer that for another person, any more than I can tell them what their favorite color should be, or with whom they should fall in love. I like to see the art I make go home with people who have connected with it, even “fallen in love.” Personally, that is why I buy art. I can’t buy all the art I love, but I love the art I buy.
I cannot explain exactly how this works, but these apparently useless pieces I spend my days making do somehow, sometimes, in their abstractness and wordlessness, speak to people. I am always surprised when somebody seems to “get it” because I’m not certain I always get it myself. The thing I know is that I love to create and that there is nothing in the world I want to do more than what I am doing. Somehow, sometimes, that message seems to be communicated in the art.
The thing about handmade things, whether or not they have an apparent use, is that something of the spirit of their maker is invested in them, whether or not the maker or receiver are conscious of that being the case. Every now and then I look around at the walls and surfaces of my home and realize that the many pieces of art I own are somehow challenging and comforting me, and also nurturing my own creative spirit. Furthermore, they are giving me pleasure.
That is no small achievement for an inanimate object.
I am a great appreciator of the work of the British sculptor, Henry Moore, who died in 1986 at age 88. In a 1964 article published in a French journal, Moore is quoted. “I believe that art in itself is akin to religion,” he said. “Art is, in fact, another expression of the belief that life is worth living.”
If I may borrow a religious term, art is “sacramental.” It does not just sit there, it speaks, it conjures connections, stirs our feelings and imaginations, surprises, delights, and moves us, and reminds us of how wonderful it can be to be a human being. An artwork conveys something of its creator when that person is in his or her very best mind, which is the creative mind through which the artwork came to being. Furthermore, it is emblematic of some sort of striving and triumph, the completion of a tiny heroic quest undertaken in order to create the artwork. A work of art presents us, then, with a living experience, perhaps stirring to life some beauty sleeping within us. Now I am not saying that any of the art images I’ve posted here are necessarily doing that for you, but I am saying that there is art that can speak to you like a friend, and that is personal and valuable. Maybe even, in the grand scheme of things, useful.
“Makarios,” is an ancient Greek word for happiness, connoting in particular the happiness of God. This mandala is somehow, in my mind, emblematic of divine cheer, the revelling of a creator in his or her creation.
Deborah Norsworthy: Artist Statement
First I am a writer. My creation of mandalas, altered books, and mixed media assemblages grew out of that profession, and out of my practice of mosaic collage which has been evolving for more than a decade. Practically speaking, materials and my enjoyment of experimentation inspire me to pursue particular projects.
More profoundly, I am compelled by consistent conflicting energies in my personality, by my deep respect for the act of creation as a holy endeavor, and by the feeling of completeness and inner strength that come to me through the making of art. I am a fierce champion and great appreciator of the handmade. To personally create a piece that possesses its own original honesty and beauty takes me beyond the ephemeral experience of fun (indeed, the work is often tiring and tedious) to a more durable state of joy.
I work with materials salvaged and collected from nature, the street, demolition sites, thrift stores, and with papers I have salvaged or bought. These materials include old art calendars and catalogues, used books, rusted metal, pressed flowers and leaves, roots, bark, sticks, beads, and unidentified interesting small objects. My tools are scissors, pencil, eraser, art pens, ruler, tweezers, exacto knife, sewing needle, punching tool, knitting needles, pliers, screwdrivers, and a large heavy-duty stapler. I also use a fair amount of white glue, PVA, craft glue, and polyurethane varnish. The main part of my collage process involves a sophisticated development of the scissors-and-paste method I learned in kindergarten.
I work at my dining room table which itself is a piece I collaged with small squares cut from art calendars, then gave five coats of polyurethane. It is washable.