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The art of letting go

by Alexandra Weaver- Lifestyles Editor
Tue, Sep 26th 2017 06:00 pm
Photos taken by Alexandra Weaver
Rev. Katie Jo Suddaby uses a chak-pur to add details to the uniform of an ICE officer. The officer is arresting the Virgin of Guadalupe as an ironic comment on the current state of affairs in America.
Photos taken by Alexandra Weaver Rev. Katie Jo Suddaby uses a chak-pur to add details to the uniform of an ICE officer. The officer is arresting the Virgin of Guadalupe as an ironic comment on the current state of affairs in America.
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It’s not often that people make art with the intent of letting it be destroyed. It’s even less often that the artist actively destroys it themselves. Sand artists like Reverend Katie Jo Suddaby make each of their works knowing that they will be destroyed.

Suddaby has been making mandalas out of vibrantly colored sand at Geva Theatre Center throughout the duration of the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival. She has been making Tibetan-style sand paintings for seven years, one of the few non-monks who work in this medium.

“I saw a monk do it at a conference about seven years ago at Nazareth and was totally mesmerized, so I went home and made my own tools out of an oil funnel and a cake decorating tip, and watched some YouTube videos and taught myself how,” Suddaby said. “After a number of years of just doing it in my dining room on my own dining room table with my oil funnel, I finally got to meet some monks and get some real training.”

Though Suddaby uses professional tools now, she still makes her own sand sometimes. One of her friends, Kristen Smith, was there to help Suddaby answer the audience’s questions. Smith described the technique that Suddaby uses to make her own sand. She essentially uses pastels to dye the sand when she can’t find craft sand in the color she needs. One of her custom colors is a pale yellow.

Suddaby was trained in Rochester as well as in Nepal. Over the last seven years, she’s made about 40 mandalas. They have ranged in complexity, taking anywhere from two hours to several months to complete.

On Friday, Sept. 22, she was working on a piece that depicted the Virgin of Guadalupe being arrested by ICE agents. She went to great lengths to portray the Virgin correctly, even down to the folds of her robes. The Virgin was completed on Friday, and Suddaby was working on completing the first ICE agent. She looked as peaceful and serene as she does in Catholic statues. The deep red, emerald green, turquoise and bright yellow of her robes provided a stark contrast against the black and navy sand that Suddaby was using to create the ICE agents. She almost looked content, as if her hands were clasped in prayer rather than crammed together by zipties.

Suddaby originally planned to take seven hours on this particular piece, but it ended up taking much longer than anticipated, as art often does. Originally, Saturday, Sept. 23, was going to be a destruction ceremony. The sand would have been swept away into the Genesee River by anyone who wanted to participate. Geva is allowing her to continue her work, and the destruction ceremony will take place whenever she finishes. The piece that Suddaby is making is a companion to Geva’s current production of “In the Heights”, as well as a statement about the current political climate.

“I wanted to do some things with some of the issues that have plagued our latino brothers and sisters over the last few years,” Suddaby said. “To sort of give a little humanity back to the people who are just sort of political aims to push back and forth.”

Suddaby’s art doesn’t shy away from tough or political issues. She almost always does a piece for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. She also likes to depict minorities in a positive light, in attempt to combat the negative messaging that commonly surrounds minorities in the media.

“I figure as a white artist and as a woman, I’ve got more of a platform. If I put powerful pictures of people of color out, the audiences who see it, who at this point are mostly white—who knows why—there’s just more good, positive images of people of color in their minds,” Suddaby said.

Suddaby mixes techniques when she makes her art. She places some of the sand by hand, releasing only a few grains at a time, a method called rangoli. Rangoli is the Indian technique for making sand art. Suddaby uses the rangoli technique when she is covering large areas with sand. 

Most of the time, she makes Tibetan-style sand art, using a metal tool called a chak-pur. The chak-pur consists of a metal tube that has ridges on one side, a large hole at one end to fill with sand and a small hole on the other, which the sand falls out through. Using a small, mallet-like instrument to hit the ridges causes vibrations that release the sand. Suddaby uses this technique when she wants to add details, such as words or folds in fabric.

Suddaby brought enough chak-purs for curious Fringe Festival-goers to try their hands at using them. Three art teachers from various schools in the city school district tried the technique themselves. 

“I made up this project years ago and then everyone tried to steal it from me in the city, of making mandalas out of your name. We teach about mandalas now so we thought ‘Maybe she makes sand mandalas,’” Katie Breedy, one of the art teachers, said.

The teachers reflected on other mandala-related experiences they’ve had with their students. Genine Hawkins, an art teacher, recalled showing her students a video of Buddhist monks allowing their mandala to be destroyed after working on it for days. The three laughed after remembering how upset their students got, and how confused they were as to why the monks would let their work be destroyed.

“I told them about how when they destroy it, then you take the sand and you brush it up and you put it into the river so that it gets dispersed throughout the whole Earth, like it’s connected to everyone,” Angela Hetelekides said.

Perhaps the process of destroying the mandala is in itself a form of art because of the symbol it creates.

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