Tara Goreau joined Sterling’s Summer adjunct faculty this summer to teach the class Mandala Murals. Her work already hangs in the foyer of Dunbar Hall, as well as many other prominent locations throughout the Northeast Kingdom, and we took a few minutes earlier this week to talk about the class, the process and the 2 stunning mandalas that now grace Sterling’s McCarthy Barn and Paradise Hall shed.

BB: Tara, can you tell us a bit more about the origin of mandalas?

TG: Mandala means “container of essence” or “circle” in Sanskrit, and the use of a mandala was first observed in Hinduism, but has been used in cultures all over the world for centuries as a representation of the universe, time, and the concept of “infinity”. Mandala’s have been used in spiritual practices to guide meditation, focus energy, and calm the busy mind by drawing a viewer into their aesthetic patterns and visual cues.

BB: How do you begin the process of making a mandala?

TG: A mandala must first have an intention behind it. The creator of a mandala usually starts in the center, or focus, and then works outwards, creating balance with different layers. These layers bring different meanings to the central focus. When a mandala is complete, a viewer must go on a mental journey from the outside of the mandala to the inside. Each level will bring you closer to the meaning within the mandala, similar to the way there is more matter in the very center of an atom.

BB: Can you tell us about the 2 new Sterling Mandalas?  What are the names and stories of ours?

TG: Yes! With these mandalas, we aimed to capture the “essence” of Sterling College.

“Connections”– McCarthy Barn-Corinn Bacon, Tyler Kittridge, Christopher Estrada

Mandala-Murals_4625In each of the four corners of this mandala sits a leaf in the sky. Two deciduous and two coniferous leaves of different varieties mirror each other. Each sky depicts a time of day- dawn, day, dusk, and night. Below these leaves and skies creep the friendly Folky Decomposers, they beckon for us to join them on the journey through the mandala. Some of these macro fauna are having a good time as they play instruments and groove to the music, while others creep between various fungi and plants, clearly oblivious to the free Kool-Aid that the others must be drinking.

Beneath this mossy dance floor lie bubbles, rising to the surface. These bubbles represent the the fleeting nature of existence, and the preciousness of the “now” moment. Some of these bubbles showcase season-specific tools used in classes and workshops. We must savor the moment in order to savor our experiences as we live and work and study at Sterling College. Colorful petals representing the chakras interlace with these bubbles, symbolically linking the mind (the perception of grasping “now”), and the body. In order to be present, we must be aware of the energies that we omit, and let our true intentions guide us along the way. These intentions will guide us through everyday life as we spend many summers, falls, winters and springs at College.

We continue to the next level of the mandala- a continuous panorama depicting scenes from the seasons at Sterling. Summer is warm with growing crops, a rushing river surrounded by forest, and a late-summer chicken slaughter. This leads us to fall, where a meandering buck looks on over a Thanksgiving feast while an axe rests in a stump after chopping wood. Winter brings snow logging with the help of a draft horse, and then sugaring and planting crops in spring.

Below the changes in the season, like the gears in a clock, spin the moon cycles. Reminding us that we, too, are simply rotating through space like the moon, and that these seasons, to which we attribute such distinct scenic and activity shifts, are simply a result of our planet’s direct position from the sun. And inward we go to the sun with a human scull eclipsing it- we arrive at the meaning at the center: From death comes light- from mortality comes knowledge, from knowledge we improve on our seasonal tasks, and then, because we have to embrace the present moment, we party, and the leaves continue to grow and change.

“Planet Sterling”- shed next to Paradise- Kesha Medina, Hannah Bowen


This mandala also illustrates the seasonal traditions, classes, and wildlife surrounding Sterling College. If we start from the center, water- the reason we exist- stylistically inhabits an Earthlike sphere, springing forth outdoor scenes against a mountainous Vermont landscape. Varieties of tools and objects found at Sterling form the borders of each seasonal quadrant. A pink moon rises from the Earth, mirrored by a sunlike sunflower, dripping with honeycomb and representing the warmth and sweetness of the summer months.

Macro invertebrates, feathers, and various images of the Northern Vermont wilderness encapsulate this Sterling Square, reminding us that we are surrounded and enriched by these wild characters every day we live and study here.

A border of red clover, celebrating VT’s state flower, connects us to a ring of migrating geese. Petal-like sections correspond to the directional aspect of the mandala. Like a compass, the top points North, where woodcock make their nesting grounds. To the North East we see apples ready for harvest in the fall, then a permaculture garden design to the East, which reads, “Think holistically, the planning of one aspect cuts across all others.” Summer lilacs waft their sweet perfume, birds follow the lines of rivers North and crocuses bloom in the spring, as bright snow flakes erupt from the darkness of winter. Around the edges sit the traditional white Craftsbury Common houses, celebrating the living history that makes this place unique.

In the end, these mandala murals tie in a few different art forms, including the tradition of mural painting. As an art form, murals have been used for centuries to publicly celebrate the stories, culture, and traditions of communities. This class also took inspiration from the 19th century Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of installing painted “barn quilts” on the outside of barns. This spectacle has been re-emerging throughout North America during the last 15 years as a way to promote the public appreciation of rural agriculture and agricultural history. These traditions, coupled with the mandala design, hope to invite passersby to celebrate the essence that is Sterling College.

BB: What did you enjoy most about teaching this class at Sterling?

TG: There are so many things I loved about this class, but the first one that comes to mind is how much the students care about- and are interested in- this place and the environment. Their in-depth knowledge of their surroundings, and their hunger to learn more, was such a catalyst that allowed them to put some spectacular energy and focus into these works of art.

BB: What are some tips you might offer to somebody who wants to make their own mandala?

TG: My advice is start by folding a square piece of paper into quadrants so you will have a framework for balance. Then, using a pencil, or colored markers or pastels, start from the center and work outwards. Set an intention before you start, or allow that intention to come to you as you explore shapes. Sometimes over-thinking can be the enemy of doing, so just draw! Remember to breathe, and remember to be patient with yourself. And have fun!

Filed Under: Blog Community Environmental Humanities

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