S&H Editor Ben Nussbaum spoke with Los Angeles-based artist Shelley Kommers about mandalas, the colors pink and green, and working with gold leaf.
Your mandalas appear built up, layered. Is that work done digitally or with physical materials?
Both! I create my mandalas by hand as well as digitally, and they range in size from smallish (8” x 10”) to largish (36” x 36”).
For physical mandalas, I pull together various materials and build up an interesting base before the mandala design is drawn in and gold-leafed. I use text, tissue paper, found items, vintage illustrations—and sometimes I create drawings to layer in. Every piece is different. I sell mandalas on my website and create commissioned mandalas as well.
Digital mandalas work the same way, except the images and paint layers are all scanned into my computer. Working digitally is both easier and harder: You can’t really make a mistake but there are endless possibilities.
I wasn’t sure if that was real gold leaf or a digital component. Is gold leaf hard to work with?
It’s not difficult to work with, but it doesn’t always do exactly what you want it to do. Luckily, my mandalas have an unfinished, sort of wabi sabi thing going on, so imperfect gold leafing works with the aesthetic.
Additionally, gold leaf changes with the light: It can look pale yellow or deep bronze depending on what time and at what angle you’re looking at it. So that needs to be factored into things as well.
How much of the final mandala is in your head before you start and how much do you figure out on the fly?
When I create a mandala for myself, it’s all on the fly, and that’s really fun. I just start laying things down and see what happens. When a distinct feeling or story starts to emerge I know I have something, and I move in that direction.
When I create a commissioned mandala, I have a plan in my head before I begin because I have my client’s wishes in mind: colors, images, feelings, and so on. There still is a lot that is figured out in the moment, though, because with all the layers and the mandala drawing you never quite know what things will look like until you’ve committed to a few steps. Then it’s a process of creating something beautiful and meaningful from what is there.
What does a mandala itself mean to you? Are mandalas explicitly spiritual or more of a design solution, a visual motif?
To me, a mandala is both a visual motif and something spiritual.
Creating mandalas is a joyful and meditative process for me, and looking at a beautiful mandala makes me feel calm and hopeful, like a prayer.
I see a lot of pink and green. Do those colors connote a certain vibe or mood for you? Do you feel most like yourself as an artist when using them?
I love pink and green. They’re the colors of my favorite things: flowers.
Pink makes me incredibly happy, so I guess it’s part of my personal vibe. For my last commissioned mandala, my client requested, “No pink and no flowers!” I had to sit down for a minute to think about that. The piece ended up absolutely gorgeous, but that was a new and interesting limitation for me.
When did you first create a mandala? Was there a sense of discovery there?
I created my first mandala in 2008 at an art retreat in Port Townsend, Washington, called ArtFest. I was just beginning to make art again after several years of being a full-time mom and I was in dire need of artistic inspiration. One of my workshops was making mandalas with the amazing artist Anahata Katkin. It was a huge fan girl moment for me, but I was so absorbed in what I was making that I remember very little of the class. It was kind of otherworldly: It was like taking one language class and then being able to read and speak fluently. I left that workshop wanting to make many, many more mandalas.
For more on mandala, read: “Mandala Art: Drawing Your Way to Wholeness.”