Paula Brett placed the ribbon candies in a circle atop a sheet of white paper on the floor of her art studio in Tampa. She was building a mandala, an artistic representation of the universe and the idea of impermanence with roots in the Hindu and Buddhist faiths.
Brett, former yoga instructor and art teacher, connects with the idea of impermanence and the sacred symmetry of mandalas.
"It becomes something else," Brett said. "Once you arrange the candy and take photo, it transforms and becomes two-dimensional. It has a whole other meaning."
She had no idea when she started experimenting with candy as a medium, it would lead to a wider audience for her art. Wall-sized 40-foot by 40-foot photos of Brett's mandalas will go on display in New York's Dylan's Candy Bar on Dec. 2.
"My friend once told me, 'You are making the sacred out of the profane,"' Brett said.
Three years ago, Brett moved from New York to Tampa, leaving behind a gig teaching high school art.
While searching for studio space in Tampa, she reached out to the Hillsborough County Arts Council. Someone there recommended the West Tampa Center for the Arts at 1906 N Armenia Ave. It was there on the third floor of an old converted cigar factory that she found her space.
Inspired by the waters of Tampa Bay, she began painting abstracts of the waterways. A fan of Andy Warhol and pop art, she also undertook a project of painting candy boxes to change the wording, but not the font, to create familiar phrases.
"When I was working on that I had to take all of the candy out of the boxes and I just thought about what I would do with candy as a medium," she said.
What Brett came up with was mandalas. She started with a pack of orange gummy slices and artfully arranged them on a white sheet of paper, adding different candies to give it vibrant colors, and created a circular, symmetrical piece titled Orange Slice of Heaven.
Once in the groove, the work on a mandala could take about a week. At night, she'd leave the work on the floor unfinished and hope that the ants wouldn't get it.
"I'll close the curtains to make sure the sun doesn't melt or fade the candy," she said.
Still, the piece can't be too perfect. Brett likes to leave imperfections in the mandala to demonstrate it was created by a human.
Once a piece is done, Brett turns to her neighbor in the West Tampa Center for the Arts, a professional photographer and has him shoot a photo from above.
When that's done, it's time to break down a work by carefully putting each piece of candy back into its proper bag. She separates them by color and type. "It takes longer than pulling them out," she laughed.
From time to time her materials get sticky or fade or just become mush, so she tosses it out. But there isn't a shortage of candy in her studio.
"I'm always shopping for candy every time I go into the store," she said. "I'm most attracted to things I've never seen before, unusual things like gummy fingers or gummy fried eggs."
The dedication and consistently beautiful output earned Brett the recognition of a client, who introduced her to a New York's Elisa Contemporary Art gallery, which now represents her. Dylan's Candy Bar will display the limited edition candy mandala prints and sell them for $2,150.