Category Archives: mandala

Doin’ the mess around

A lot of messing around gets done in art therapy sessions.

Which I love. Play is so important for children, essential to brain development, to the growth of imagination, dexterity, cognition, emotional health.

It’s important for adults too. When we’re in a state of play, we have a sense of engagement, a way to escape time, and the process itself is more important than the product.

I spend loads of time playing, with kids, with friends, and by myself. Here’s some messing around with Kwik Stix and a Sharpie marker.



Inspiration is sometimes hard to come by

But I try to follow the Ten Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life from Sister Corita Kent and John Cage. Especially these three:

  • Rule 3   Consider everything an experiment.
  • Rule 6   Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.
  • Rule 7   The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something.

Here’s some stuff I do when I’m having trouble getting something going.

I scribble.




I scribble or draw on top of an image in an old book or discarded magazine.




I make my own coloring book.



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I make a mandala.


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mandala zz

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I rip up paper and glue it down.



I just mess around with materials. (Kids are geniuses at this.)



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The most important thing is the doing, the movement, the physical connection with the materials. Eventually, something opens up. And if it doesn’t… well, scribbling has it’s own satisfactions.

Zigzag books

book boxI’ve written before about the importance of containers in art therapy. Books are great containers for all kinds of expression. Fortunately, journals and sketch books, recycled books for altering, and paper for handmade structures are all readily available.

There are many easy ways to make simple books from one piece of paper. A basic zigzag (or accordion) book is just a long, narrow piece of paper, sharply folded back and forth in any shape or proportion. Any relatively sturdy piece of paper works for this.

zz examplesThe books can be used to display a collection of drawings or photos, or used as little journals. I glued a collection of  little mandalas on the pages of this 3X3 book.

mandala zzIf you want an accordion book to close, both side edges have to be secured somehow. I love finding different clasps and ties for these.

purple square

cartoon zzYou can also work directly on a blank book, and the space, whether horizontal or vertical, becomes like a little mural. So this space is great for longer or wider designs, poems, graffiti, boyfriends’ names, etc.

dots zz

dots zz coverYou can use one or both sides of the paper. I put a cardboard cover on this one and lined the other side with brown paper, because I used Sharpies and they soaked through.

dots zz open coverKids love working with zigzag books, particularly if they are mounted (after completion) in small boxes, which can also be decorated. Boxes make them special, gift-like, precious. Any small box you can collect works well. I use photo corners to mount the book ends in the box, but glue works fine too.


happy happy day



zz3Whether or not you decide to make some zig zag books, please remember this important advice about life from illustrator Maira Kalman:

Grow, stay, decay

As an Italian Renaissance art lover, art preservation and restoration have always been important to me. So it feels like somewhat of a contradiction that I gravitate in my own work towards impermanent materials. The found and recycled materials that I use are fun to gather and to work with, but they don’t last, and they resist preservation.

So I have followed the ephemeral art movement with great interest. Andy Goldsworthy, the environmental sculptor who produces site-specific works of astounding beauty, photographs each piece once right after he creates it. He says this about his art:

Each work grows, stays, decays – integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its heights, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expressed in the image. Process and decay are implicit.

The photograph. Photography has allowed the marriage of the ephemeral and the permanent. If we are lucky enough to be there at the time, we can see the work at its peak. If not, we can love a beautiful photograph instead. We have to let it go, but its beauty remains. A reminder to value the moment.

In an older post, I included a video of Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala, which they destroyed when finished as a nod to life’s impermanence. It would be very special to see that process in person! But we were fortunate that it was captured on video. Here then are more mandalas created from ephemeral materials. The photos remind us that nothing is permanent.

Kathy Klein creates exquisite mandalas from flowers and other natural elements. Here are a few examples, but there are hundreds more, each one more beautiful than the last. You can view them all at dānmālā.com.

Here’s a beach mandala made from seaweed, artist(s) unknown, waiting to be swallowed by the tide.

The fact that the work does not remain creates an urgency to see it. For instance, if someone were to tell you, ‘Oh, look on the right, there is a rainbow’ you will never answer, ‘I will look at it tomorrow.’                                                                                                                                         – Christo

Simon Beck, a snow artist from Savoie, France, created these mandalas by plodding through the snow on snowshoes. Each piece takes 5 to 9  hours to complete and is about the size of three soccer fields. His works are quickly covered by new snowstorms.


And finally, I love these collaborative yoga pose mandalas from the folks at The Human Mandala Project.


The new year has me thinking about mandalas. Something about coming full circle, back to the beginning again. A mandala is a circle, a symbol of the universe. A Hindu or Buddhist mandala is a circle enclosing a square with a deity on each side that is used as an aid to meditation.

Some art therapists make mandala-making a primary part of their therapy practice. Although this is not true of me, I see a mandala as a representation of wholeness, and experience has shown me that creating mandalas can be very therapeutic. In spiritual traditions, mandalas may be used for focusing attention and establishing a sacred space. In therapy, creating a safe space is paramount, and focus and self-reflection are ongoing goals. With children that are very disorganized, that lack focus, that have difficulty containing themselves, a paper with a pre-drawn circle to work within can be very helpful. It creates a frame, a container, and the circle form surely contributes to a feeling of centeredness. According to Carl Jung, who wrote extensively about mandala symbolism, “The severe pattern imposed by a circular image of this kind compensates the disorder and confusion of the psychic state—namely, through the construction of a central point to which everything is related.”

An eight year-old girl came to see me weekly for art therapy. She and two younger siblings landed in foster care because their father used regular, severe corporal punishment as his primary teaching and discipline strategy. She struggled with severe anxiety, among other things, and each week when I greeted her, her brow was furrowed with worry. But she loved to make art, and found some safety in the sessions. She was easily engaged and lively, and enjoyed the looseness and playfulness of the art process. But experience had taught her to contain herself and to avoid messing up at all costs. So when she did allow herself to loosen up, she could only enjoy it for a little while before the anxiety came flooding back.

In a memorable session, we spent 50 minutes blowing colored feathers into the air (her idea) with a hair dryer (my idea). After we had spent some time on this playful, silly, fun activity, I became aware that she was becoming anxious. This surfaced in the form of a kind of forced jocularity, a change from fun silly to nervous silly. And I knew that giving her a way to contain her anxiety (Jung’s “disorder and confusion of the psychic state”) was very important. So we brought things down to earth and made this mandala (Jung’s “construction of a central point to which everything is related”).


This time lapse video of Tibetan lamas creating a sacred sand mandala is fascinating to watch. It is over 15 minutes long and spans a four-day process. It’s a slow start, but if you can stick with it, I think you will find that the simple observation of the amazing process is a meditation, and the magnificence of what emerges over time is a revelation. For those who are not Tibetan sand mandala-savvy, there’s a surprise ending.