New Orleans artist’s garden of digital delights
Muffin Bernstein came back to New Orleans from grad school at Florida State “all full of fire” in 2002, and soon an apartment fire destroyed all of her possessions. She lost all of her graduate and undergraduate artwork--the young artist’s entire oeuvre.
So when Katrina hit, Bernstein was poised to help students and friends who called her for advice on adjusting to loss. And she was well-versed in nature’s power.
Bernstein taught for years at Xavier beginning in 2002 and names Ron Bechet and John Scott as influences. While teaching, she took daily walks in nature and photographed local flora and fauna.
Her insect and plant photographs are accomplished, but Bernstein’s electrifying, radiant mandalas drew me in. I asked her how she arrived at the images, and she named another experience that shaped her.
In 2009, she had a seizure in her sleep, and wound up in the hospital for two weeks with two spinal taps performed incorrectly. She said all she wished for in the hospital was something to focus on that would help her heal, recalling, “All I wanted to look at was something that was full of life.”
She turned to 17th century Tibetan mandalas (ancient concentric diagrams which have appeared across religions for focusing attention on harmony, and are microcosms for the Universe's higher order) which she views on the internet or in books. Bernstein adapted the mandalas with shapes from images of regional plants. She began gardening, and laying cut fruit and leaves directly on a scanner for detail. When she can, Bernstein grows the fruits and vegetables; when she can’t, she gets the goods from Hollygrove Market. She uses Photoshop to collage the parts.
Using actual images of nature is in the tradition of mandala making, she says. Tibetan monks have long made ephemeral sacred circles out of flowers and plants. Bernstein’s images contain a record of all the stages of the local plants she grows, meaning one mandala comprises the plant’s entire life cycle of leaf, fruit and flower. Plants are a natural fit, as the Tibetan designs she studies not only used plant matter, but their structure reverberates the sacred geometry found in nature--spirals, stems, seeds, and the like.
The dichotomy of digital and handmade and their engulfing size contribute to the mandalas' liveliness. Future ideas include having the mandalas printed on fabric as a scroll, or as a deck of cards. Bernstein’s willingness to let the images live in and out of the gallery realm of art adds to their potency. Of meditation, she said, “there’s room for the devout and those of us who dabble.” I think this statement could be adapted to art as well-- there’s room for art “for art’s sake,” so to speak, or for people’s sake, and everything in between.
Bernstein’s ultimate vision for the mandalas is to make them accessible at a healing center or hospital. She said she spoke with a hospice nurse about the final stages of life: “She made it clear. We all die, you can be more comfortable in dying.” Humans' humble place in nature, and the fragility yet vibrancy of life click together in some happy node, in the mandalas. Bernstein hopes their calmness will spread.
She mentioned another location in our discussion of “the ideal viewing experience”: Restaurants. “I just brought a mandala copy to Banana Blossom on the West Bank. It was delightful to have the piece sit somewhere where it fits.” Though visually complex, the mandalas' return is simple. The plants of New Orleans--bananas, mirlitons, satsumas-- give Bernstein life, through actual nourishment, necessary food. And the harmony of the images radiates back out thanksgiving.
Her aunt’s shop, The White Camellia, also houses some of Bernstein’s work alongside oil paintings by her mother. What a wonderland! Nature is worshipped in The White Camellia; full homage is paid to all things blooming or growing. Bernstein's art blossoms out of that love.
She says with a smile, “Nature--one thing about it, it doesn’t really talk to back to you, it just makes violent storms. When she’s angry, she’s really angry. Otherwise we really get to reap the rewards.“
Muffin Bernstein’s Mirliton Mandala is on view at the 8th annual ArtMelt, a juried competition of Louisiana artists at the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge, through the end of August. Blueberry Medicine Mandala and many color photographs are on display at The White Camellia, 3937 Magazine St. at Austerlitz, 11 p.m. - 6 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday. In December 2011, Bernstein’s mandalas will be included in the Florence Biennale, nominated by curator David Rubin, formerly of the CAC.