This past Saturday, the Black Cultural Center saw students and faculty gathered around tables stacked with tubs of acrylic paints and mason jars filled with bouquets of paintbrushes as it hosted artist and art therapist S. Ross Browne for the Therapeutic Abstract Art Workshop.
Working in the Richmond, Virginia Area, Browne has created breathtaking and provocative portraits of the people affected by the African diaspora. Additionally, he currently works as an art therapist for the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System and focuses primarily on pediatric oncology, infectious disease, traumatic brain injury, in-patient psychology, and elder care patients. Bringing his talent and experience with him to campus, Browne aimed to ease the stress and pressures of those who came out to the BCC on Saturday.
“I want people to be able to make a little more order out of the chaos of their personal universe today. It can be overwhelming and much too big to even think about sometimes. I’d like people to take those things that overwhelm them and compartmentalize them,” Browne said.
While the idea of organizing an entire life into one painting may sound overwhelming, Browne came prepared with a particular art style in mind that is traditionally used for precisely this purpose.
“A mandala in sanskrit basically means circle. It’s a spiritual device that defines what our universe is. A microcosm,” Browne said as he brought up some examples on the nearby monitor.
Beside him, the screen progressed through various images of colorful, geometric patterns, each one fanning out from a shining central point. Browne went on to explain the classic form of a mandala features a square with four gates holding a circle with a central point within it. Clicking through his images, he showed how this basic form has examples found in many, disparate religions: Hindu yantras, Christian rose windows, and the more familiar Buddhist form.
“What we’re going to use [a mandala] for is to put our own personal universes into a small twelve-inch by twelve-inch space. We’re also going to use it to give symbolism to all those things, positive and negative, that make up our lives. You’re going to take the wild, cacophonous nature of your life and give it structure,” Browne said.
The structure Browne proposed was made up of four parts, and required only two pieces of dinnerware to design. Holding up a polka-dotted square plate and a simple, round dinner plate, Browne went on to demonstrate how to outline one over the other to create the traditional circle-in-square design. Everything outside of the penciled square was to represent the chaos of a person’s life. Within the square symbols were things someone may dislike, and within the circle symbols was for things someone can’t live without. Inside of this shape, one last, smaller circle is drawn using a cup from the nearby refreshment table.
“In this center will be that one thing in our universe that we find the most important. And that can be anything. It can be your connection to God, that could be your favorite color, that could be cheesecake,” Browne said.
“We’re going to do a little bit of guided meditation before we get started. Usually, we do that prior to eating, but keeping students away from free food is practically impossible.” Browne announced,drawing laughter from the crowd, and causing some to nudge empty paper plates further under the table.
Browne lead the room in a few minutes of deep breathing exercises. Though a short meditation, the effects seemed evident; they varied from relaxation to one or two cases of vertigo that were quickly laughed off.
As students painted their way towards the center of their mandala and the atmosphere of the room seemed to change while the room collectively worked through each symbolic section. While everyone was focused on the outermost chaotic region, the sound of canvas frames lightly banging into tables filled the space as many sponged in the colors they disliked or found stressful. Smudged greens and browns, fiery reds, and cold blues all meant to symbolize the trouble in that particular painter’s life were harshly layered onto canvas corners. However, after finishing this chaotic outer portion representing chaos, many had to take a pause.
The question as to what made them happy usually took more than a moment of consideration for each painter. There was chat amongst neighbors as to what might be the best color to embody concepts such as peace and freedom, and requests to pass down the book of Adinkra symbols that Browne brought with him were announced to the room from time to time. Originally created by the Ashanti people, these symbols are meant to represent important concepts or aphorisms that appear in West African culture. For many who attended this workshop, one of these symbols was chosen for the center of their particular mandala. For Riana Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the symbol Sankofa filled the central ring of her mandala.
As she lovingly finished this symbol which resembles a scrollwork heart, Anderson explained. “Sankofa, it means ‘return and get it.’ So it’s a symbol that reminds me to be mindful of the past while still looking towards the future, so for me that has two purposes. Personally, I need to remember the dreams I had growing up of being a psychologist, and going to get that future. That’s the moment I’m in now in my life. But also, professionally, what I try to do is help families navigate racial stresses and traumas. I help them to look at the past and what black folks have gone through so that they can use that and each other in this current moment to move forward.”
For others, such as Amal Sagal ’19, the center of the universe was more ambiguous. Within a square painted with soft oranges and golds, Amal gently painted in the last white wingtips of a dove resting in a blue circle.
“I’m not really sure [what it means]. It was just whatever I was feeling, and whatever colors I was searching for I put down. I didn’t really think to hard on it, but I was trying to create some sort of disorder and order. I tried to not create too much pressure to make it perfect,” Sagal said.
As each painter finished up, Browne met them on their way out to see their work and get a photo with the artist and their new piece. More than once, he’d hold up a mandala to show to those still working. Browne would praise the way a particular student applied gold or copper paint to their canvas or how another student had used impressive skill in feathering out the whites and tans on their mandala.
“I think this has been maybe one of my strongest classes. And it’s not just because [Swarthmore] has more mathematics type people. l I think when you have young minds and spirits producing something and they haven’t become jaded to the world yet, all the work they do is filled with optimism and hope. That can only come from being someone who has an outlook for the future. So overall I think the work I saw today was beautiful,” Browne said.
Dion Lewis, the Director of the Black Cultural Center, hopes that the art therapy workshop and the other programming organized for Black History month will inspire more people to come out to the BCC in the future.