DEER ISLE, Maine — Bryant Holsenbeck was working on her latest art project last week inside the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts’ Center for Community Programs when a woman came into the building.
The woman had several dozen empty cat food cans and suggested that Holsenbeck could use them for her project.
“I was like, yeah, we sure could,” Holsenbeck said a few days later, recalling the story and looking at the cans, which by then had taken a central spot in the art project.
The cat-food lady’s trash was treasure for Holsenbeck and a group of students and community members who worked to create something considered sacred and powerful out of what most of us toss in the garbage.
Using tens of thousands of bottle caps, jar tops, cat food cans and other items, Holsenbeck and her crew made a mandala, which is a traditional Asian or American Indian symbol whose basis is a circle. The circle can mean a wholeness, or may be a symbol of the infinite or represent a cycle such as that of the seasons.
Mandalas have appeared in many cultures, and they’re closely associated with ancient Tibetan monks who made mandalas out of sand as a reminder of the fleeting nature of our world and our lives.
“In Tibetan, ‘mandala’ translates as ‘cosmos,’” Holsenbeck said. “Every mandala means something different. They’ve been done over the centuries. They’re highly complex and beautifully colored, and they’re usually geometrizations of temples.”
A flower can be a mandala, she added, as can a sliced orange or anything circular with a pattern. And they appear in all kinds of religions. A rose window such as those found in Gothic churches in Europe can be a mandala, too, Holsenbeck said.
Haystack’s mandala, which is about 10 feet by 10 feet, will remain on display through Thanksgiving inside Haystack’s Deer Isle village outpost.
The building is open to the public during regular business hours.
“This is what we envisioned it would be when we developed the building, that it would become a center for people in town,” said Haystack Director Stu Kestenbaum as he watched the students working with Holsenbeck. “It’s a great spot.”
The exact number of items used in the mandala is unknown, but Holsenbeck estimated at least 18,000 assorted pieces. Some of the items came from the community, and many are from Holsenbeck’s own collection of more than 10 years. She shipped four boxes of tops, cans and tins to Deer Isle from her home in North Carolina for her community-based residency through Haystack.
Holsenbeck, who has taught classes at Haystack over the years, started her career as a basket maker and is now known as an environmental artist using everyday items to create her work.
Her installation work includes rivers of cans, hangings made from recycled chop sticks and labyrinths constructed from old shoes. Holsenbeck’s small-scale work includes animals made out of wood, wire and recycled fabrics, birds made from recycled credit cards, and books covered in candy wrappers.
Part of her inspiration in using garbage and recycled goods goes back to Holsenbeck’s start as a basket maker and thinking about how American Indian basket makers use materials easily found in their environment.
It was easy to look around at her own environment to find materials to use.
“I started thinking, OK, if I was an Indian I would use what works now, and that’s the plastic and all the stuff we’re throwing out,” she said. “[Maine] is a clean place and I don’t see much garbage here, but that’s not true in many places. I don’t know why you don’t have plastic bags washing up on the shore, because a lot of places do.”
Holsenbeck also has created mandala installations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, sometimes with the help of high school students.
About 20 students from Deer Isle-Stonington High School helped Holsenbeck with the Haystack mandala last week. Holsenbeck started the project by mapping out a grid and then taping spots on the floor where certain design elements would go.
The rest of the design was done spontaneously, because Holsenbeck wasn’t sure what items she would have until she arrived in Maine. The cat food cans, for example, were a surprise.
“I have a grid, and I have a knowledge of what works,” she said. “Plastic next to metal [for example], I just know they look different because they’re different reflectivities. So there are things that I know, things that I use.”
The cat food cans went into the creation of a pyramid in the middle, from which undulating three-dimensional arms made out of metal iced tea bottle caps radiated through another circle.
“It looks like it’s gonna, like, get up and go walk into Deer Isle village,” Deer Isle-Stonington sophomore Autumn Robbins said as she surveyed the mandala after a group of students had filled in areas of the project with orange caps in one space, and red and purple caps in another.
There were caps from jars of olives, baby food, peanut butter, spaghetti sauce and milk, along with caps from drinks such as iced teas, sodas and beer. Holsenbeck even found a way to incorporate empty breath mint tins, pop-tops from sports drinks and flip-top caps from syrup bottles.
Another element to the display inside the Haystack building is hundreds of yards of discarded rope collected from the Deer Isle area. Holsenbeck originally planned to use the rope in the mandala, but decided instead to drape it from the ceiling of the room to form a kind of curtain over the design on the floor.
She also visited the elementary school to make flowers out of plastic bottles with some of the schoolchildren who aren’t old enough to help with the mandala.
Holsenbeck said she hopes people who look at her work will see the importance of understanding where our garbage goes — and that it can be recycled for the most unexpected purpose.
“It’s the fact you can make art out of anything,” said Deer Isle-Stonington senior Meaghan Robinson. “You don’t need nice paint and a canvas to make something beautiful.”
For more information, call 348-2306 or go to www.haystack-mtn.org.