My name is Ash and I live in Saskatoon, SK. I studied Archaeology and always had a passion for creating art. After completing my degree, I went on an excavation to Macedonia and then Cyprus and enjoyed every moment of discovery. I found it difficult to sustain myself financially with Archaeology and started working at the University of Saskatchewan in student support roles and eventually I became disconnected from my passion. I worked to survive and over time this way of living wore me down. Approximately 2 years ago, I became very ill and was not able to work. I lost a lot of weight and was tired all the time, my energy levels were incredibly low. I worked with different specialists and took many tests to try to find out what was wrong. Eventually, I was diagnosed with colitis and depression. I focused all my energy on being healthy and on trying to find ways to heal my body and my mind.
I grew up on a farm and often found bones in the field when I would help my dad. These bones would be so intrinsically beautiful. I found myself fascinated with bones and the stories behind them. This interest in bones (skulls mostly) continued as I went on to complete my degree in Archaeology. On my first dig, I excavated human bone fragments and exhumed a turtle skeleton. I felt drawn to the symbolic power of bones and how they remind of the fragility of life.
“the indestructible life force, the bones” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes
I visited India in 2013 when I was 27 years old. My trip to India was a turning point in my life. I had not seen true human suffering until this point. I witnessed poverty beyond what I imagined, illness and sorrow that completely overwhelmed me. I visited temples with exquisite art and one of the Jain temples had elaborate jade carved mandalas. These intricate designs were so relaxing to look at, I instantly felt peaceful around them. The environment of the temple was otherworldly and I was amazed that someone had spent the time carving all those little details into jade. While in India, I started a mandala in a book that I carried with me. It would be the first of many and it was meditative to work on. When I returned, I couldn’t stop creating mandalas.
Mandalas are circular patterns; they act as reminders of patterns and cycles in life and in death that all humans experience. The repetitive patterns bring a sense of calm, of consistency and continuity amidst a chaotic external world. The action of creating a mandala requires presence and awareness of the breath. The mind is like a monkey, always bouncing from one subject to another but when intention to be fully conscious is there, there can be peace. The mandala is a tool for healing, for stilling the mind and becoming aware of blockages. I create mandalas to find the places in myself that are stuck, in need to releasing and causing myself or others harm. The mandala is a space to be fully present and to become connected to the self instead of pushing uncomfortable feelings away. When the mandala is complete, a transformation occurs. It is possible to feel an energy of calm, of purified emotion and distilled wisdom from meditating with a mandala.
Animal skulls were revered ritual items in ancient cultures. It is an honour to paint the skull of an animal. I received skulls from local farmers, trappers, taxidermists, friends and family. All skulls are legally and ethically obtained. These skulls would otherwise be discarded, they were on someone’s land or not seen as trophy size, they were found on trails through the forest or at a cabin. The mandalas were profound on the skulls because they added the dimension of death and facing mortality. Skulls became an avenue to deal with uncomfortable topics like depression, death, illness, and aging. The mandalas transformed the skull into a beautiful reminder and one that energetically held potent power.
I use different rituals for the skulls depending on where the skull comes from and what cleaning is required before I can start painting it. If the skull needs to be cleaned, I will degrease it and clean it in temperature controlled water before whitening it with hydrogen peroxide. At the point where the skull is clean enough to be painted, I begin to spiritually clean it. I use sage, cedar, resin and salt to clean animal skulls. The cleansing process is as simple as having intention to work on something that was once alive. I don’t take the work lightly and the ritual of cleaning helps me prepare mentally and spiritually for the mandala. I think a lot about the animal that I am working on whether it be a fox, wolf, coyote, bear or ram, I value each equally. When this clearing is complete, I can put my energy into forming a mandala.
Dreams play a big part in my mandalas. I have very vivid dreams and once I have committed to a project, elements of my work appear in dreams. I am passionate about the art that I create and this affects my subconscious. There are many layers to creating mandalas. Meditation is a trance-like state that I can easily go into once I start the mandala. I begin from a small dot or circle. On skulls, I always begin in the center of the forehead (or third eye) and I make my way outward. I don’t plan the structure of the mandala but rather let it unfold organically. The mandala will blossom until I feel it needs to go in another direction or another small circle will be started in a different location on the skull. During the project, I integrate designs I see in my dreams, in meditation and if I am working on a commissioned piece, the person I am making it for may influence how I create. I feel connection to each piece, like I am giving of myself or birthing an aspect of my creative body. I am intertwined with the process; each line and paint brush stroke is a part of me and I feel transformations occur as the project unfolds.
My art is a tool for self-evolution and it is also my way of transforming pain into beauty. I go deep into emotion, into the dark parts of my mind and uncomfortable states of loss and I allow myself to come through it. I don’t try to escape my depression or sadness, there was a time when that was all I could do, but now I sit with it and learn. I am fueled by the emotions that attempt to control me and then I infuse those same emotions into patient patterned designs. These mandalas are my medicine and they provide a healing way to connect to others on their own healing journey.
As my work has evolved, I have attended markets, craft shows, art exhibits and put my art in local shops. I have had the opportunity to work on commissions for people around the world and connect with other artists that bring a fresh perspective to my process. My art allows me to connect to all types of people through Instagram and my website, they sometimes open about their depression and their own personal struggles. I am very lucky to be able to listen and learn about the personal details of others. It is a privilege to hold space for others and be present when they go deep into their own darkness to come out on the other side. The skull mandalas provoke different responses; some people immediately are drawn to them and others react with disgust or discomfort. All reactions are welcomed and allow an opening for discussion and sharing beliefs. My greatest achievement with my art has been connection. It has helped me to be vulnerable and face fears, it encourages me to move past self-imposed limitations and see what else I can draw out to examine and then process.
Photos taken by: Jay Scott Photography
STAR PHOENIX ~ Passion in her bones ~ Artist uses skulls as therapeutic canvas
CTV NEWS CLIP ~ Art as Therapy