Warmth in February is wonderful, and the eighteenth was one of the first days to crack 60° Fahrenheit here in Swarthmore. Students, as expected, were delighted at the return of sunshine, and proceeded onto Parrish Beach to frolic and relax. Many also made their way to the Black Cultural Center (BCC) to attend a Therapeutic Abstract Art Workshop, one of a series of events held to commemorate Black History Month at the College.
Inside the BCC the atmosphere was set by the growing clamor of excited students and the slow beat of soul music that emanated from adjacent rooms. Food was provided and quickly demolished by everyone present. After a while Dean Lewis invited S. Ross Browne—the visiting artist and instructor—to begin the lesson.
Currently Browne works out of his studio in Richmond, VA, but he has a long history with the Mid-Atlantic Region. He studied Communication Art and Design at Virginia Commonwealth University, Photography at The Corcoran School of the Arts in Washington, and he is an alumnus of The Miller School of Albemarle in Charlottesville.
His portfolio, which primarily consists of painting, has been exhibited in a variety of venues, including many professional galleries. He is also an educator and art therapist who spends a great deal of time in both hospitals and inner-city communities alike. Drawing upon this expansive pedigree, Browne reflects and explores the multi-faceted face of the African diaspora in his work, a few examples of which he was happy to show us.
“Today,” he opened, “we are going to do some mandala painting.” Mandalas are common geometric designs in Hindu and Buddhist traditions that represent the universe, and can be either painted, drawn or constructed. Typically involving the intercourse of squares and circles, they are essentially spiritual representations of an individual’s inner-world. (A literal translation from the original Sanskrit roughly comes out to “circle.”) They are also often used, in secular contexts, as emotional therapy, where one’s inner turmoil is allowed space to order itself. It allows for one to come to terms with one’s own aspirations and to better position oneself within the larger fabric of existence. A common practice in Tibetan Buddhism is for monks to pour and painstakingly arrange colored sand into an intricate mandala, only to gently blow it asunder once the piece is complete—an acceptance of the impermanence of our world.
“We’re gonna focus on the chaos in our lives, we’re gonna focus on the things that give us displeasure, that we hate, that brings us strength in our lives. And then, closer to the center of our universe, we are going to have those things that give us joy, that give us peace, our favorite things in life, and in our center is the one thing in our universe that is most important. That can be anything. That can be your connection to God, that can be your favorite color, that can be cheesecake, it doesn’t matter. That’s where the symbolism comes in,” Browne said.
Mandalas, though rooted in the cultures of the Indian Subcontinent, have been appropriated by many others. Browne himself often uses mandalas in his work and he talked at length on the transitory nature of symbols, on how they can be vilified or sanctified through context (with the swastika being the most notable case).
Continuing on the subject, Browne explained how he uses a special symbology, called Adinkra, as a way of combining multiple meanings from cultures both African and American. Adinkra can be traced back to the societies of 19th Century Egypt, but it has taken on a much larger significance after recent revaluation; Kwame Appiah, a Ghanian-American scholar, called it a pre-literate system of “supporting the transmission of a complex and nuanced body of practice and belief.”
As an artist from two backgrounds, Browne builds on this tradition. He engages with these symbols to bridge and enrich two identities, one embedded in America, another in Africa. And thus, as an example, a ladder is not only a slice of Americana; to him, it is, also, a piece of Africana on the inevitability of death. By using symbols like this as a code for deeper feelings, the students aimed to encrust their own insecurities and inspirations within an abstract, visual language wholly shaped by their perceptions.
Eventually the painting began. Brandishing brushes, everyone followed Browne’s lead and started to design their mandalas, using plates as stencils. Once the shapes had been traced out, acrylic paint was first applied on the periphery of the designs. The students worked from the edges of their canvasses to the middle; travelling from chaos to order; ordo ab chao as the Latin idiom goes. The chatter of the crowd, though still present, had dialed down. Now the real dialogue was between everyone and their efforts.
By the end of the workshop, every student had made, in the words of the event description, “a visually stunning piece for [their] home decor, a gift, or an exercise of self-expression.” But everyone also left appreciating how symbols are a method of communication, and how creating art can purge us of the burdens we carry in secret.