The Story of the Art’s Emergence
by Bonnie Gold Bell
Originally published as the Introduction to our book, GaiaStar Mandalas: Ecstatic Visions of the Living Earth
As we crested the drive, we saw it for the first time. Majestic, wreathed in mist, it rose like a granite pyramid from the valley floor. The Rock. Its surrounding lands have been haven to wildlife and indigenous peoples for centuries, and the area is still mostly untouched. Taking up residence within sight of this giant was like moving into a Earth-cathedral whose rolling hills and deep arroyos shimmered with spirited beauty. Living here has awakened our outer and inner sight and propelled us to create visionary Nature art.
The visual infusion we received when we moved onto this property has been translated into the many images you see in this book. Every picture starts with real objects from Nature. Most come from right around our home (in Mendocino County, California). The flowers and plants are wild or growing on our deck. The feathers and wings are medicine-gifts from our local birds and butterflies. The colored rocks are from the creek beds and hillsides around us. Certain crystals and exotic feathers have also migrated to this sanctuary, drawn as we were to its wild splendor.
The Rocks Made Us Do It
Arriving at this hilly Eden in 1996 was like coming to a new world. As we explored its environs, that wonder only grew. In our first year here, we hiked through the woods as often as we could, drinking in the details. And while we were honored to make the acquaintance of all the wood’s fauna and flora, we were most captivated by the rocks. At first we brought home tiny stones, which were examples of the range of mineral colors common to this locale. Soon, though, we made regular forays to the large creek below the Rock in search of new treasures. Like children in a candy store, we would exclaim over every brilliant treat we discovered. Mostly we just admired and photographed these stones, but some volunteered to be part of a special collection on our deck. In the first year, we hauled hundreds of pounds of rocks up the hillsides to place in our growing outdoor shrine.
We went home and got a handcart and some rope and returned to the rock. With its permission (yes, we communed with the rocks), we loaded it onto the cart. Laughing and dizzy with the effort, we managed to drag it up the hillside to its new home. We named it the Earth Rock because its rich red-yellow mass seemed to embody the grounding warmth of our home planet. In the days that followed, we ringed the Earth Rock with a circle of smaller quartz stones. We then marked out a five-pointed star within the circle. Contemplating this image of interpenetrating Earth and Star further catalyzed our vision and inspired the name “GaiaStar”.
Gaia is an ancient name for Earth as goddess. In recent years, it has been used by systems scientists, such as James Lovelock, to refer to the Earth as a planetary whole. According to systems theory, the Earth meets all the criteria for being a self-regulating, living system. On a global scale, it functions much like an animate being. This scientific theory dovetails with a common intuitive response to the Earth as a great (most often feminine) personage. In the western world, she is personified as “Mother Nature”.
Creating a ceremonial setting for the Earth Rock solidified our partnership with the planet. In a very real way, all the art in this book is created by the Earth, with our assistance. Who, after all, compressed the colored minerals into such gorgeous patterns, and who birthed the myriad growing things? We are very grateful for this collaboration with Nature. We see ourselves as trustees of an abundant Gaian treasury.
Remixing RealityEven before moving to Mendocino, we had begun making art as a way of comprehending a major shift in our awareness and experience. Whereas previously we had identified divinity only in the high or cosmic domains, we had begun to contact that spirit within the Earth. This was a somewhat disorienting affair, as we found our old ideas about what is sacred turned on their heads. Since we didn’t really have a vocabulary for describing this growing awareness, we depicted it in collages.
Collage is a medium eminently suited for this kind of re-visioning. It involves juxtaposing visual elements (either images or objects) to create a composite that is novel or surreal. It is all about taking pieces of one thing and grafting them onto something else. Size and perspective are malleable. This was ideal for our exploration.
These collages expressed a central theme: Awareness stretches from the highest to the lowest dimensions; spirit and matter form a continuum of being. The figures in our collages all displayed this transdimensional quality. We had angels with bodies of rock, cats that flew, and roses that spilled gems from their centers. We worked again and again with pictures of the Earth from space. At first, we put a halo around the globe, then gave her a crown, and eventually wings. Certain elements were repeated and gained special meaning for us. We were developing an iconographic language, or visual shorthand. The images conveyed our sense of the continuous and sacred “livingness” that reached from below to above.
We began to understand our artwork as a kind of visual alchemy. In traditional alchemy minerals were cooked together until their elements split apart. Thus dissolved, they could re-combine into a new and precious substance. Like alchemists liberating gold from lead, we remixed pictorial elements in order to unveil the bright potential within ourselves and our material world.
In the year before we moved to Mendocino, the source material for these images began to change. Whereas our earliest collages were mostly composed of clippings from magazines, we now started to incorporate photographic elements from our home and our Nature walks. The images became less abstract and more personal. Our statues, our cat, the trees in our yard became part of the pictures. By the time we arrived at our new home, we had eight or nine such pieces. In the months that followed, we created more than a dozen others, prominently featuring elements from our hillside retreat. We created these pieces originally for our own use, never thinking of sharing them more widely. They were our way of modeling an upgraded existence.
Into the Heart of Matter
With every month, our partnership with Nature continued to deepen. We were–and are–unabashedly in love with the multi-hued world. We started taking more close-up photographs, filling whole frames with the neon green of moss, the scarlet of manzanita bark, and the rainbow surfaces of the rocks in the creek.
In the fall of our second year here, we started a new collage, using a close-up photograph of the Earth Rock as its background. In order to get a full visual field we used two prints of the same photograph of the rock, rotating the prints so that they came together as a reverse image. Something was triggered by putting these twin photos together. Shortly after that, we got a digital scanner and began experimenting with our close-up photos.
We scanned a number of photographs and worked with them using Adobe’s Photoshop software. When we first took a section of a photo and flipped it to form a symmetry, we made an electrifying discovery: at the intersections between the two identical parts, all sorts of creatures and objects appeared. The doubling of the image opened a visual portal through which we could see a whole new world within our world.
Seeing these figures appear in so-called inert rock was a classic “through the looking glass” moment. It was a vision of the infinitely rich interior life of matter. The mirroring of an image allowed our brains to connect with something that our bodies already knew: The microcosmic world is as complex and inhabited as the human and cosmic domains. We are, the planet is, alive inside. Cells, molecules and atoms dance in a vast quantum sea. By multiplying and re-arranging the patterning information from a photograph, we had opened a visionary doorway into Nature’s core.
Over the months that followed, we evolved the symmetrical artforms and began sharing them with others. Up to that point, we had seen our art only as a tool for our own personal transformation, and as our way of invoking a new reality. But our friends said the art had a euphoric effect on them as well. People began asking to take the pieces home to use for meditation or simply to enjoy their natural beauty. Everyone said they felt drawn into the images, and they really liked where that took them.
We quickly expanded beyond our rock photos to make symmetries from other visual materials like flowers and feathers. Each image that emerged from these highly textured and colored objects had its own vibrant effect. Part of what was so stunning was seeing the natural geometries arise when we assembled these images. One such picture we called “The Full Circle”. It was made from a very quartz-filled section of our friend, the Earth Rock. When we chose the photographic section to work with, we were not trying to create a circle, but when the pieces were assembled, a full circle emerged in the patterning itself.
This appearance of this circle impressed us. It spoke of the inherent power in these natural images. We began to call these pictures “Matter Mandalas”. Mandalas are a form of Hindu sacred art that have also been highly developed within the Buddhist tradition. Mandalas are usually based on a circular shape, depicting a sphere or chalice of positive energies. The balanced patterns and geometric shapes that appeared in our images, though not always circular, evoked a comparison to classic mandalas. And, like traditional sacred art, our art had an elevating effect on people. It was a spontaneous modern expression of the blessing energy that is conveyed in traditional mandala art.
We emphasize the spontaneity of this process, because that is what spurred us on. The emergence of these mandalas had more the quality of revelation than design. And yet, our own visionary intention was clearly part of the mix. We had asked for a way to transmit the graceful potency we felt in our communion with the Earth. It seemed we had found our means in this style of art.
Neither of us had any training or prior experience as artists. We had previously worked with the written and spoken word, doing editing, writing and public speaking. While we had always been inspired by traditional sacred art, especially from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, we never imagined ourselves creating it. However, starting with our early collages and accelerating with the revelation of the Matter Mandalas, we found ourselves increasingly focused in a visual medium.
Telling our story in this linear fashion makes is sound rather orderly, when it wasn’t. We were more like Alice after having drunk from the bottle; we were getting bigger whether we liked it or not. In retrospect, we refer to this process as “going Gaian.” It is the exhilarating–and sometimes disconcerting–process of awakening to wide-bandwidth existence. We retrained our attention and tuned into levels of sensory input that we had not previously been able to access.
We began this adventure as fairly rational, if idealistic, people. For many years, we had assumed major responsibilities in international non-profit and for-profit businesses. We had been seriously applied to the exploration of consciousness. Now we found ourselves engaged in an equally rigorous and ecstatic process of scanning and remixing bits of visual information. We were a little like Richard Dreyfuss, in Close Encounters of The Third Kind, sculpting his mashed potatoes into a dream-seen mountain. Our art emerged from a trance-like state of perceptual openness. Through a process of reception and distillation, we discovered a visual vocabulary that could begin to convey our experience of the living planet.
We thought of ourselves as translators; people who decipher a message in one language and encode it into another. We had the experience of making contact at a core level with our planet and finding it full of spirit-light and presence. Our immediate mission was to find a way to “notate,” in the form of visual (photographic) information, the vibrational essences we drew from that contact. When we selected a portion of a photograph, it became a bit of source code which we reassembled into mandala images. The images could then speak in the Earth’s visual voice about the emergence of a new global possibility.
After creating many Matter Mandalas, we began using these geometrical patterns as backgrounds and borders for our collage figures. We created an initial series of ten figures, who we thought of as “transdimensional Allies.” The original characters contained elements from many of the world’s traditions (the wings of Isis, a Tibetan crown, a Huichol Indian mask). They also had parts that were earthy (mushroom wings, a body of stone). Some of the later figures literally emerged from the Matter Mandalas, in that they are figures who came into being through one of the symmetries.
Each Ally figure was featured in its own setting, or doorway, made from our mandala patterns. Soon the ten figures became a clan of twenty-one, and we saw that, by devising a complementary sequence of Matter Mandalas, we could create an entire series of diverse images. This series depicted a futuristic story of planetary evolution. In these images, we summarized our experience of our home environment as a “turned-on world”, a place where spirit and matter happily interpenetrate. We called this series The GaiaStar Codex.
The sixty-four images that comprise The GaiaStar Codex formed a basic “pictogrammar” of our visual language. We worked with five basic elements: rocks, plants, feathers/wings, flowers and crystals. These elements were analogous to the five traditional alchemical elements: earth, water, air, fire and ether. Five elements were enough, it seemed, to build a visual world. We wanted these images to be used actively, in the form of a card deck or interactive system. After the pictures were completed, we named them, wrote commentaries, and devised many ways the Codex images could be used for self-empowerment and to access guidance. With the help of Pomegranate Communications, we published the entire series and system as The GaiaStar Codex: Seeds of a Turned-On World.
“… an emerging global being is forming in our midst. This Gaian entity contains countless diverse species and life-forms. Just as differentiated cells organize to form a complex body, myriad individual aspects of Gaia are coalescing into a new kind of planetary unity. This is happening electronically through the world-wide computer web, but it is also happening at profound levels of biological and spiritual identity. The global being is taking shape where grand laws of self-organization intersect with a planet-wide intention to make a quantum leap. From this fertile conjunction, a familiar yet uplifted Earth emerges: luminous, self-aware, awake as many-in-one. This is a turned-on world–the GaiaStar.”
—The GaiaStar Codex, p. 6
Even while completing The GaiaStar Codex, we developed more forms of mandala art. One style, which we called Healing Mandalas, were based on a twelve-sided wheel or star. Both the precisely circular shape and the twelve-part structure seemed to be suited to communicating healing energy. Again using the five elements of rocks, plants, wings, flowers and crystals, we created a series of thirty-five Healing Mandalas to be used singly, or arranged together in a “array”. We called the whole series “The Splendor Array.” Our desire to share the restorative energies of the Earth through this “medicine art” was very warmly received. This full potential of these images, now being used in hospitals and healing centers, is still unfolding.
No description of how this art evolved would be complete without acknowledging how we use guidance in its creation. We each listen to our deepest intuition in determining how any given piece should take shape. Often, one of us will get an initial holistic vision of the image as well as some idea of which elements should be used. We create a first version and then re-mix the piece, still on the basis of core intuition, until it comes together in a way that makes us both say, “Yes.”
Art alters us. This certainty underlies the initiatory and healing imagery of all human cultures. Our artist-ancestors who painted stirring images on cave walls knew intuitively what modern science now verifies: We Homo Sapiens are greatly affected, as most creatures are, by the color/shape/figure input we receive from the outside world. As a matter of survival and also evolutionary adaptation, we are structured to respond (amid many simultaneous sensory responses) to the vibrational wave-pattern information we take in through our optical sensors.
Our inborn visual response mechanisms, though clearly geared to survival purposes, can also be directed toward lofty goals. Sacred scientists in every age have, via meditative and altered states, envisioned how to use art for the purposes of consciousness expansion and healing. Through a process of deep self-informing and trance vision, these men and women created imagery designed to induce changes of state. In doing this work, the artist-priests tapped into a reservoir of sight-triggered responses to help induce a desired end. Although some sacred art is representational, depicting divine beings or totems, much is abstract and geometrical in nature.
Cultures all around the world have worked with stylized sacred images . In the Americas, we find medicine art in the form of geometric sand paintings and other ceremonial symbols. Islamic art abounds with sacred diagrams, as do the European alchemical arts. The cosmological charts of the Mayan and Jain religions are exquisitely detailed. The list could go on and on. Wherever people are engaged in ritual practice, such artforms evolve. Via the wave-lengths of their colors and the numerical messages embedded in their geometries, they stimulate our brains and nervous systems in observable ways. Especially when augmented with other sensory triggers, such as scent and sound, they can activate new capabilities and awareness.
Mandalas, coming originally from India, have migrated to many new lands. Combining a central geometric enclosure with a whole variety of additional symbols and figures, they can transmit information on many levels. GaiaStar Mandalas likewise convey a wealth of transformational input.
What distinguishes our images from other mandalas is both the method of their creation and their core purpose. Classic mandalas are related to a specific belief system. Their purpose is to provide significant visual-vibratory support for practitioners of a given tradition. GaiaStar Mandalas, however, are not aligned with any specific religion or practice. Though archetypal shapes and symbols from many faiths appear spontaneously when we re-order the photographic source materials, GaiaStar Mandalas are tradition-free. They speak in a universal voice.
Classic mandalas are also created by hand according to very specific geometries and color-schemes. You could say that traditional mandalas are composed with “analog” (realistic) elements via analog technology (painting or drawing). Our GaiaStar Mandalas take shape when we remix analog source materials (the rocks, flowers, and so on) via digital technology. When the raw materials of Gaia are thus digitized and re-arranged, they gain a new kind of power. In the digital context, a potent meeting takes place. Chaos, in the form of the fractal patterning of Nature, melds with Order, in the form of the intentional geometries we create via software. This marriage yields endlessly fascinating combinations of human-made and Earth-made patterns. This is part of the thrill in creating these images. We never know until the pieces come together what marvels we will see.
Sound Tracks for the Eyes
In The GaiaStar Codex, we call our images “songs clothed in light”. This description points to the vibrational fullness of GaiaStar Mandalas. In arranging the images in this book, we chose to mix the various styles of mandalas, rather than group them by category. Each section is like a track on a CD, sequenced for your viewing pleasure. This encourages the eyes and mind to move around, to focus in and out at different depths, and to take in the various “notes” in the images. Each of the six sections has a “song” title, reflecting the theme that plays through the selected mandalas. In the end, though, all the images are variations on the grand theme of Earth-Ecstasy.
The main admonition in looking at these images is to enjoy them. As medicine art, they evoke delight and uplift. They are a way of taking in the richness of the Earth. The only technique we recommend is to feel them as much as see them. The images communicate on many levels. One time, you may notice the geometries and the ways the shapes interact. Another time, you may focus immediately on the fabulous creatures that pop out of the images. You may perceive certain pictures more in terms of energy or waves of emotion. Every time you look at the same picture, you may see or experience different things. Feel free to experiment. These images extend an open invitation to explore Earth’s visual domains.
People report many effects from meditating on these mandalas: some experience bliss-states; some gain new information; others find the contemplation restful and healing. There are those who actually “hear” music in the mandalas, and others who find them re-appearing in dreams. Every person responds uniquely to these visions. What people report most consistently is that this art helps them see the Earth with new eyes, giving them heightened awareness of her illumined nature.
Here is our testimony as makers and users of these mandalas: Gaia has tremendous beauty-power, which she freely shares through these visions. We were called to create this art so that many people could access her treasuries. Through these images, you can interface with and feast on the lit-up energy within Earth. May this bring you and our planet great blessings.
More about the art: