We associate mandalas, especially the Buddhist sand ones, with ritual and serenity, created slowly with solemn ceremony.
Paula Brett's version relies more on chaos theory and the clash of shopping carts.
Using a $3,000 grant from the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, the artist and her helpers have spent recent Saturdays whizzing them around vacant big box store parking lots in the predawn hours to form large mandalas. Yes, she does it with the permission of the stores; this is art, not a flash mob.
The whole process, she said, takes about two and a half hours, 100 carts supplied by the store and 12 parking spaces.
The installations may seem at odds with Brett's earliest encounters with these spiritual symbols. Years ago as an art teacher, she taught her at-risk students about their balance and harmony. She found that making mandalas was a calming therapy.
About five years ago, Brett, 45, relocated to Tampa from New York with her husband and young children and found studio space in a converted cigar factory. She works in different media, including painting.
For a conceptual piece, she used repurposed candy boxes and was left with a lot of candy. She began arranging it into forms that became a mandala, almost unconsciously.
Though it looked like a frothy confection, Brett realized that it related to traditional mandalas in meaningful ways. It was as ephemeral as a Buddhist sand mandala yet, unlike the latter, it wasn't a symbol of temporal life. Candy, a consumer product, is temporary because we eat it.
She hired a photographer to shoot her assemblages and had prints made. They attracted the attention of a New York gallery owner who began representing her and in 2013, prints were displayed and sold in Dylan's Candy Bar, a popular destination in New York owned by the daughter of designer Ralph Lauren.
But... shopping carts?
"It's the same idea," she said. "The briefness of the installation and its consumer associations."
Brett draws a schematic for the carts' arrangement as a guide and a store employee lets Brett and her helpers — she likes to have 5 — into the store at about 5:30 a.m. to grab the carts. The design is assembled as quickly as possible and photographed aerially. Then the carts are put back in place for the soon-to-arrive customers.
"Home Depot keeps their carts outside overnight so no one had to unlock the doors," Brett said.
She has completed three shopping cart mandala installations so far.
"The first one was hard," she said, because coordinating all the cart movement was challenging. "Now (the volunteers) hand me the carts and I put them in place. Then they help me tweak their placement."
Some stores have declined to participate in her shopping cart art project, usually because they're part of a mall and don't own the parking lots. But most have been receptive, including Home Depot and Target. She's optimistic about Publix.
"It was definitely an interesting request," said Jim Burgett, the manager of the Home Depot on N Florida Avenue in Tampa who has worked for the company for 26 years. "A first for me, for sure. But I knew it wasn't going to cause any hardships for my associates or customers and it would be in good taste. Nothing political, just art."
Some stores can't be used because they have too few carts for the design, or too many trees that interfere with the photography. Some have carts that are the same colors as those she already has. (She's seeking stores with yellow or black carts, FYI.)
Some stores are fine with participating but don't want the publicity. One store made her blur out the name on the carts. Saturday, Brett will be in Brandon at a store with green carts, but she won't say where.
Brett will mount prints of the photographs on acrylic glass. There will be eight images, each of a different store and color. Sets in several sizes will be produced in limited editions for sale.
"It's been a lot of work," said Brett, who has always worked as a studio artist. "But I really love doing it."
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.