The Sacred Art of the Mandala (Part 3)

IMG_4790The final piece for my mandala course is not worthy of exhibition. It is raw and messy and experimental. It is the culmination of three months of excavation, learning and reflection.

Understanding the mandala has given me license to continue to use circles over and over in my work, which has been remarkably freeing.

The background of the mandala is celestial, representative of the universe. We are but a vapor on this pale blue dot, and yet we are the universe. I am the most and the least important thing. All of human history is nothing compared to the vastness of the universe (there is such comfort in knowing it is not all up to me). I am a vapor and my only responsibility is to be the best version of that vapor. To love and be loved in my brief moment. And yet, I am the center of the universe. I am made of billions of neurons, trillions of cells and a mysterious expanse of consciousness. I am where everything begins and ends- I can only see the world through the two eye I have been given, only feel it with this softest of hearts. And so the galaxies are both near and far.

The heart is the center.  The heart weeps and bleeds and shines. It is crisscrossed with connections; friends, family, transatlantic flights and late night phone calls lay the foundation for the web of a lifetime. Piercing the heart are bits cut deep, broken by life and circumstance and dreams deferred.

IMG_4789There are two different shields on the heart. This is both an aesthetic and meaningful decision. I prefer the way the point looks poking into the heart, but need the covering of the shield piece, which covers over and protects the brokenness. Sometimes our pain wounds us and makes us beautiful, sometimes the things we love the most are the ones that hurt the most. Sometimes the Beautiful One soothes our pain and gives us what we need to be stronger and protected.

The blood pours out from the heart and from the galaxies because we never bleed alone. The Great Beyond feels so cold and far away, but it bleeds with us, the world bleeds with us. We are united in our suffering.

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Alternate Universe

 

I would give anything to be sitting in bed in my flat in South Kensington. Instead, I am trapped in an Alternate Universe. I am here in my bed under the same quilt, but the room is too big and the dog curled up next to me is too fluffy. The window at the end of my bed looks out on a suburban street rather than rainy mews. I drink my coffee from the same mug, I cry the same tears, the same books are piled next to my bed, but this isn’t the right universe. This isn’t the place where I belong.

Here there are people to love and be loved by. A few here. A few there. Him. Her. Them. Bright points of light in a dark sky that have been glowing for years and years. Here in this alternate universe there are lovely people & beautiful places & great adventures & joyful songs, but my soul is cold. Here feels like floating in a cold space without quite enough air to fill my lungs.

In the Promised Land I am Casey MacKenzie in full color. After a lifetime without quite enough oxygen I stepped off the plane on the fifth of May and breathed deep. I was embraced into the warm hug of community. My soul warmed and was nurtured in ancient churches, pubs, council flats and late night vigils in the church parking lot. There are so many to love & be loved by & the bright points of light start to shine as lifelong bonds begin to form in the warm glow of of a rich community.

In this Promised Land there is heartbreak and tears. Homesickness, fatigue, pain and loss, but a walk by the river in the glow of Albert or Ben does wonders for a hurting heart. There will always be tears, but in London the tears punctuate profound joy, dreams achieved, and Sunday evenings in the balcony.

When I cross a bridge, any bridge, over the Thames my heart fills with a kind of joy I did not know existed. I feel so full of light & love & joy & endless possibility that I fear I will burst into a star or a sunbeam.

But that is gone now. Now, I look around this room which is too big and this dog which is too small and realize my coffee has gone cold and it feels like sad poetry.

Written in Blood

(Or The Sacred Art of the Mandala Part 2)

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“Color me, breathe your blood into my mouth.”

Handwriting has always been a creative outlet for me- in both an authorship sense and as a visual art. I have been recruited to handwrite notes and labels, hired to write chalkboard and window messages, and asked to participate in various performances and worship spaces with my handwriting. Using the written word in a visual way is part of my regular canon.

IMG_2872Several weeks ago I sewed up a few dozen prayer flags to add a physical dimension to my prayer life. I have them going around my bedroom and would like to eventually install them in an exhibition in a giant never-ending spiral on a ceiling.

Last year I tried to take up calligraphy with the idea that I would like to write in blood and use it in my exhibition artwork. I love the way both old Spenserian handwriting and perfect calligraphy look and what they communicate: thought, care, time, and the real artful crafting of words both conceptually and visually. After many hours spent fighting with calligraphy nubs I gave up.  Though I would like to convey care and beauty in my words, I also do not want to spend 10 years perfecting such a craft (as I’ve been advised that is how long it take to actually master the art).

Whilst out shopping for art supplies I saw a felt-tip calligraphy pen that could possibly be the key to my success. If I can master that, then maybe I could fill a felt tip with blood and write with that! I purchased the pen and looked forward to practicing with it. I threw it in my art bag early Thursday morning before rushing out the door to my Sacred Art of the Mandala class.

Which brings me to The Revolution.

That week in class we were charged with bringing a sacred text and sharing it with the class. I brought Rublev, a poem by Rowan Williams (copied at the bottom of this post). I found reading and sharing valuable words with the class to be a wonderful experience. There is a level of mutual respect there that I have never experienced before. I am learning so much about the experience of other traditions, which have long been opaque to me. Listening attentively to my classmates had me more open and receptive the words I love so much by Rowan Williams.

I could not wait to get my new pen out and start working the words over and over. I dug through my bag- no pen. Emptied my handbag- no pen. Dumped my art bag completely out- no pen! My exciting new pen was nowhere to be found. Discouraged I wandered to the art supply table- maybe there would be something similar there.

And that is when I saw them: bamboo pens. Aha! I would get the red ink and write in bamboo pen. When I could not find a satisfactory red I settled for the Chinese black ink and went back to my table. I expected the pens to be difficult to use and the ink very messy. I was pleasantly surprised to find the learning curve only so very slight and my enjoyment immense. Here it is! Here my handwriting looks just how I like it and I can write in blood!

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“Color me, breathe your blood into my mouth.”

I stopped at an art store and market (turns out blood is cheap and very easy to come by) on my way home. Lo and behold: it worked!! I’ve been writing in blood ever since. I am not completely sure how or where I will integrate this practice into my bigger works, but in the meantime I am perfecting the handling of the blood and have an idea for a ‘blood book’ project that I would like to create: a smallish art book with every page filled with the same phrase written over and over in blood. The covers of the book will be gilded and ornate like a precious object. It will stretch a tether between sacred text and the scratching of a person gone mad.

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Lord’s Prayer

I do not know how to express how excited this makes me- I find writing in blood to be beautiful, and feels sacred. Writing something in blood feels to me similar to getting a tattoo- it is written in the most indelible and personal of ways. Conceptually I like the idea of writing in my own blood as it becomes so much more personal, but I need to overcome the hurdle (both conceptually and actually) for procurement. I do not want to harm myself- though pain is an important theme in my work, the world is painful enough without intentional harm.

The physical shape of the mandala has not appeared in my work with text in the last few weeks, except in circles on my prayer flags. The complete circle or ever unfinished spiral are more inherent in the meaning and sentiment of the texts and prayers and do not demand to be formed physically into said shapes. To do so would be redundant. Though repetition feels important in sacred acts, redundancy feels strangely profane.

(I never found my pen.)

 

Rublev

One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,

slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,

said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.

 

I said, Here is the blood of all our people,

these are their bruises, blue and purple,

gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.

 

These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,

I said, I trust I shall make you blush,

O I shall stain you with the scars of birth

 

For ever, I shall root you in the wood,

under the sun shall bake you bread

of beechmast, never let you forth

 

To the white desert, to the starving sand.

But we shall sit and speak around

one table, share one food, one earth.

Rowan Williams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sacred Art of the Mandala

In much the way it did for Carl Jung, the mandala has been pursuing me.

In early 2014 I began using circles and circular forms in nearly all of my mixed media artwork- painting spirals behind photos of models, collaging gold halos out of metallic paper, and painting a large round canvas are just a few examples. I’ve been sketching geometric designs in circles, painting round woodcuts and trying to get the circle out of my system only to find it embeds deeper and I cannot get rid of it.

It did not occur to me that the circles could be anything other than inspired by saint’s halos in traditional Christian artwork until I stumbled upon the Sacred Art of the Mandala class at UC Berkeley. To learn that the mandala is ubiquitous and carries such significance is a revelation.

Before embarking on our first official mandala, the class was directed to look inward. In my minds eye I saw kaleidoscopic images of the Grand Teton Mountains, redwood trees, deep blue skies, and the rich red of a broken but beating heart. I saw images of my own photographs manipulated and repeated into graphic and geometric forms- vivid blue skies, pale hands reaching heavenward, golden forms, and the deep red of spilled blood.

Since we were in class, I was unable to print my own photographs, but found adequate representation in the magazines I brought along with me. I’ve long been inspired by mosaic work in European churches, and decided to take that sort of approach. I picked a piece of round cardboard from the supplies table. I was drawn to the already perfect shape and the idea of working within that constrained perfection to make something symbolically complete and whole on its’ own.

I  cut the sky into triangles (to feel like young mountains and represent the outdoors). This open space circles around me as a protection and source of life. I chose to use this particular self-portrait because it is an image I created very intentionally for exhibition, which speaks volumes about who I am on the inside and outside. The photo speaks directly of a bleeding heart and is titled Baptised by Blood. The mandala is overwhelmed with red which is lighter by my head- the lightness is inspired by my saint’s halos, but also gives movement to the piece and speaks to flowing blood.

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Focus

“Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” Mark 2:3-4

I thought I knew a lot about community.

This year at Focus I learned about real, radical, loving community.

I arrived in England last week feeling hopeless, dead, empty. I could only see the life I no longer had but desperately wanted.

I arrived back in London after HTB Focus (basically an all church summer camp/festival) refreshed and energised in spirit, exhausted in body, hopeful, and excited for the future for the first time in months. I’m so deeply thankful for community who holds me up in love and prayer when I can no longer do so for myself.

I’m a woman with two hearts, two cities, two communities, two families, two homes… Now begins the journey to reconcile this to my one life and one soul. To learn to embrace the incredible joy and blessing to have so much love across the globe… And to start racking up some serious air miles.

Banished from Britain

How can I describe the last week?

I had a plan, and it didn’t work. I was kicked out of the land I love, the land I’ve always dreamed of, the land where I feel the most myself, a land full of people I love, the land I have chosen to call home.

The Brits whom I love, who I’ve not yet known even two years, kicked into action. They helped me move, they cooked for me, cleaned for me, held me when I cried. I’ve rarely felt so loved.

Do I feel like a failure? A reject? A victim of cosmic chance? I want to say yes, but that would be a lie. Down in the deepest depths I know there is a Plan. I know that I am exactly where I am supposed to be for this (hopefully very short) season. I have no doubt that I will return to London, I will work and love and laugh and drink and live and then retire to my little cottage (lighthouse) on the sea.

Landing in California is like crawling in bed after drinking 3 Red Bulls. Yeah, I love my bed- it’s  warm and cozy and comfortable and I usually hate leaving it… but i have so much to do- so much energy, so many plans, a life to live! I am being forced to rest, to think, to sleep. I should be thankful for this time. I am working really hard (counter productive maybe) to be thankful for this time out with the people I’ve been missing.

I’m laying low for now. I don’t want to answer questions, my heart is broken and I ache for London… but this season will be good. I will look back on it the way I look back on my Great American Road Trip- I was so deeply hurt & shattered, but God met me. I grew, I rested, and I found peace & adventure.

On Baptised by Blood (Part 1)

I did what I set out to do, and I did it really well. So why do I feel so lost?

Finishing a project of this magnitude feels like a break up. It’s exciting and consuming, and then all of a sudden it’s over. All of a sudden there is nothing. There is nothing left to occupy my thoughts and my heart. After a breakup, one is left piecing a broken heart back together, rubbing fingers along the sharp edges to feel the intensity of the pain which seems to lend value of the now broken relationship.

With art the pain is similar, but there is completion. Something whole and real has been extracted from my soul for all to see. In my minds eye it looks like a giant, sharp piece of obsidian that’s been painfully pulled from my center leaving me empty and breathless. I look at the photos and reread my thesis in the same way one traces the raw edges of a broken heart. I want to feel the weight of it in my chest again, the emptiness hasn’t brought the relief I expected.

I was asked to write a reflection on Baptised by Blood, but I just can’t do it. Not yet. It’s too close. I am still too stunned.

What I can say is that I set out on an academic pursuit to find a space between art and religious practice. I think I found it. I set out to make work that is intelligent but accessible. I did that. I set out to raise the money to make a huge installation happen. We did that. I set out to make work that is personal and honest and painful and sacrificial. I gave it everything.

My hope now is that it was worth it. That it brought joy and honor to the Father. That it started conversation and interest and thought. And that somehow, someway that project will pave the way for future projects.

(Photos from the installation will be live on CaseyMacKenzie.co.uk this week.)