Local goes international: Paula Brett's candy mandala creations covered by Vanity Fair Italia

Paula Brett’s found-object art is sweetly spiritual.

The Sanskrit word “mandala” means the essence within a circle. Within a mandala’s geometric complexities, there is great spiritual significance. Almost every religion draws a different symbolic meaning from the mandala – be it our relation to infinity, search for completeness or self-unity.

Almost fifteen years ago, Tampa-based artist Paula Brett used mandalas as an art therapy technique for at-risk students. She fell in love with the spiritually-rooted art form after seeing Tibetan Buddhist Monks create traditional sand mandalas on the ground.

Brett taught and lived in Moscow, Budapest and New York City before settling in Tampa with her soon-to-be husband and two children, both under three years old. It was working in her Tampa studio surrounded by leftover materials from a client’s project involving candy boxes that Brett embarked on her greatest artistic journey yet.

According to Brett, whenever she has felt in an artistic funk, she has retreated to the spiritual and artistic intricacies of the mandala. 

“I was at my studio here in Tampa, and I was feeling a little stuck, so I started to play with candy,” Brett said. “I had empty boxes that I had been using to paint on for a client’s project, so I emptied the boxes and thought ‘what am I gonna do with all this stuff?’”

In 2013, she began using the candy to design mandalas on the white surface of her studio, while her next-door neighbor, photographer Bob Sargent, shot the photos from above. In post-production, she cleaned up the images and tweaked the colors. Brett said that people immediately responded well to the deliciously divine pieces.

That December, Dylan’s Candy Bar – a New York City staple in candy du jour — featured four of Brett’s “candalas” inside the store.

Recently, her work got some international play from a cornerstone of chic. One of Brett’s candy madalas was featured in Vanity Fair Italia’s May 6 issue. Brett said she got the news via email a few weeks ago and was elated. The magazine refers to one of her pieces as "gnam art," or "yum art."

Brett has consistently experimented with creating art using found objects. Although the candy she used for her first mandala happened to be casually lying around her studio, her candy mandalas are in no way devoid of meaning. They are a physical representation of the juxtaposition of the whimsical/frivolous and the spiritual/heavy.

“I felt like I hit upon something, using objects that are whimsical, fun, nostalgic and also addictive and a little bit dangerous,” Brett said. “I always try to show two sides of things and play with paradoxes in my work. I feel that way about myself as a person as well.”

The use of found objects is of paramount importance in Brett’s candalas, which are also symbols of consumerism and consumption. She does not sketch or plan what materials she is going to use prior to creating a piece, and has recently been trying to avoid purchasing the materials she uses in her mandalas, relying instead on things she finds.

“I just work,” Brett said. “I get inspired by things and objects and designs and colors, and I just start working. I can’t plan, I just go with it.”

Brett has previously worked extensively with painting and pinhole photography, and she said that creating the candy mandalas is a totally unique and spiritual artistic experience. Producing the beautiful, harmonious pieces with great time/care and taking them apart, putting them back in their bags/boxes symbolizes the “transitory nature of life.”

“Arranging the candy in this meticulous way, it’s a meditative act,” Brett said. “I’m also thinking design and color, and then arranging it, pulling it apart and making something else with it. And it’s also very detailed and quite tedious, and that’s not really in my nature. It’s kind of a practice for me, it pushes me.”

Despite the stellar success Brett has experienced with the candy mandalas, her artistic ambition (and the recent trendiness of the mandala) has made her question whether or not she will continue concocting the dreamy candy creations.

“I had a goal for myself at the beginning of the year that I would just work and create within this form, but then I said ‘No, you have to keep going,’” Brett said. “I still have millions of ideas for mandalas, but as an artist, I’m always pushing myself to keep going to the next thing.”

Still, the spiritual significance of her work with mandalas has made her artistic success all the sweeter.

“It’s drawing from an ancient practice, and when I started creating these, I felt like I’d come upon something that I was really proud of and happy to be doing,” Brett said. “It felt good inside — it resonates to my spirit.”

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