Tampa based multimedia artist, Paula Brett, is taking her mandala assemblages to a new scale. Utilizing shopping carts to create large scale installations, documented with drone photography, Paula is fulfilling a recently awarded Arts Council of Hillsborough County Individual Artist Grant. Always a lover of movement and color, she has received recognition for her photographic images of mandalas assembled from candy. Along with the grant funding has come one lone letter to the editor critiquing her unique medium choice of shopping carts to create this new work. I have known Paula personally for a number of years; we sat down recently to talk about this new work and how she felt about the comment on the alternative medium.
Jenny Carey: Mandalas have been the imagery present in your artwork for a few years now, most notably candy mandalas. How and when did your choice of this form come about?
Paula Brett: About three and half years I think. I started using mandalas when I was teaching; I taught for 15 years in high schools, public schools. One was an alternative school and they wanted me to do art therapy with the kids; I thought of mandalas and the kids did a lot of them.
Long before then, I took a sculpture course in Scotland and was required to do a piece. I remember because I was going to be using a field, a farmer’s field, I thought I would use this ephemeral idea. I created a spiral out of old mattress springs, all kind of things collected around Scotland. I titled it Gate Spiral, inspired by all the fences and gates I had seen throughout Scotland. Even though I realized I was making a mandala, a (geometric form) with Hindu and Buddhist symbolism, I didn’t call it a mandala. The mandala form and the idea of the impermanence of life - that really resonated though and I thought it was fascinating.
PB: But I didn’t identify Gate Spiral as a mandala at the time. I left the idea behind. And Scotland was before I returned to grad school, so I wasn’t sure at the time whether I was going in the direction of painting or sculpture. I thought I wanted to do sculpture, big sculpture. That is why shopping carts are fun for me, because of the scale, but I also like the idea that it can be taken apart and put back together. It doesn’t leave a footprint at all.
JC: I think many artists that work with an alternative medium appreciate the idea of impermanence, or recognize the impermanence of the materials. How did candy as a medium enter the picture?
PB: One day in the studio, I was working on an idea for a commission piece that didn’t happen. I had started with boxes of candy, but dumped the candy out on the floor and started arranging. Mandalas were becoming a popular practice, and I had recognized that was my old form. The photographs (of the assemblages) were interesting to me. I made the background bright white, continued to work with different candy shapes and colors and photographed the candy assemblages to create a body of work.
JC: You've had quite a bit of success with the candy imagery artwork. The work was very popular; New York City Dylans Candy Bar hosted an exhibition. And having your candy mandala images published in Vanity Fair Italia must have been pretty exciting.
PB: Yes, it was! I was surprised people liked the artwork that much. I like this form; it is not as hard for me as painting. Or as hard as painting was. Painting had become too heavy of a medium for a while, it had too much history in it, it felt heavy. My painting had a story and narrative I wasn’t comfortable with for a while. I didn’t want everything to mean something.
JC: But there is a theme in this artwork? In previous conversations you brought up consumerism.
PB: That is what it came from: as I was working with the candy I questioned what it was about. The candy became a representation of consuming and consumption; it also represents buying. Noticing how much we have and we buy. For the grant project the shopping carts worked; the working title for the project is Fill. Again, I noticed we are always looking, always buying; there is always more candy. With Fill, I thought the mandalas would be even more interesting if I didn’t have to buy all this candy. Originally, I played with environmentalism for “Fill” but consumption, consumerism is the right theme.
JC: And last we talked you mentioned you might be done with this form and imagery?
PB: Yes, I felt like everyone started doing mandalas. I saw them everywhere. But when I wrote the grant, I wanted to build on previous work and push it farther. And I had an idea, that it would be fun to build large scale mandalas.
JC: How is that going?
PB: Great! My husband suggested I buy these miniature shopping carts, they are used to create a model in the studio. I photograph the model as well. I bring sketches to the site, and three additional helpers. Early in the morning, we get the carts and I set up the first one or two circles. The installations are photographed with a drone camera; after the first couple of circles I look at the first images, then play with the carts and dictate shapes. The drone photography is fun, a little out of my control, but I like that part of creativity. Each of the installations are different. And they are not all circular, I am doing singular colors of carts in different shapes. A triangle, a hexagon, a sort of a square, is it still a mandala? I don’t know. I just create them.
JC: How many carts does it take to make one image?
PB: I have a 100 miniature carts to play with in the studio but the scale of each installation varies. The first one was smaller, but now I want each one to be around a hundred. I wanted the finished presentation to be large, printed 40 x 40. They will be lambda prints, sandwiched between acrylic, as are many of the candy mandala artworks.
JC: You have a pretty big life, a husband and young children. How are you an artist in the middle of that?
PB: It can be hard, but I keep a regular schedule in the studio and do it. There is not much time, but I do it. I am painting a little again, and this (project) will be done soon.
JC: Now do you feel like you have taken the mandala form as far as it can go, or are you invested again?
PB: It might be back again. A show is the next thing; I have a letter of interest. But, a friend said, “nature never got sick of mandalas.” It would be even more fun with a big budget and a drone of my own, I would be making lots of mandalas. For me it's more the lure of the object; I stumble on it, I don’t like to search.
JC: You know your found object mandalas artworks are some of my favorites.
JC: Now, a recent letter to the editor, in the Tampa Bay Times, criticized funding your medium and questioned the funding. Having worked at the Arts Council, I am familiar with the panel process; the applications are well vetted. Do you have an opinion?
PB: I can’t let it bother me, I have more work to do. That kind of feedback – I don’t need a handout. Some people don’t know that a grant is something you want to receive; it is not just money but acknowledgement. And Andy Warhol said: “Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”