Look around Brooklyn -- brick walls spiraling in kaleidoscopical color are changing the feel of some grim inner cityscapes, largely due to thirty-three year old Parsons-trained artist and educator Chris Soria. His preferred symbol is the mandala. Working with him on these large-scale projects, that can measure twenty feet high high and as long as a city block, are neighborhood kids. Many have grown up in poverty and have a vested interest in broadening their own personal horizons beyond these streets. YogaCity NYC writer and artist Sharon Watts sat down with Soria to find out more about his interesting work and unusual band of assistants.
Sharon Watts:Why the mandala?
Chris Soria: I initially began incorporating mandalas into mural painting to break free from the rectangular confines of a typical wall, and its perpendicular limits. That led me to explore deeper into the mandala and its many manifestations. Circles of patterns have been embedded in the human psyche, both as objects and concepts--cycles of seasons, the shape of the sun and moon, even social circles--throughout the human experience.
SW: You engage community youth to work on many of your projects. One mural is at the Brooklyn Detention Center. How did that evolve?
CS: I was working with a group of youth on a Groundswell mural project in 2011. They were tasked with researching, brainstorming, and making art that explored the theme of restorative justice, a form of conflict resolution that focuses on people’s needs rather than satisfying abstract legal principles and serving terms of punishment. While researching this topic, we came across Howard Zehr’s 10 Ways To Live Restoratively, a framework for applying restorative justice into our own lives on an interpersonal and spiritual level.
The practice of living restoratively involves being aware of our impact on others and the environment, treating everyone respectfully, and viewing conflict as opportunity. I had all the participants begin by drawing a circle. Whatever followed would be created within that circle. Our discussions took place in a circle. Even our writing assignments began with a circle on the page. Meanwhile we explored how mandala-making was used by many cultures to represent wholeness and healing, how we move in circles, participate in circles of community and relationships, and how a mandala connects us when viewed from a certain perspective.
SW:You recently did a mural in Kolkata, India. How did that come about?
CS: I was in India with my fiancée, Piyali Banerjie, who had a year prior painted a mural in Kolkata, created with a group of girls who had been rescued from human trafficking. The mandala we painted represents girls and young women from various ethnic backgrounds and places throughout India, their lives overlapping and merging in solidarity. The piece is titled “Nirbhaya Mandala.” Nirbhaya is the pseudonym given to a victim of rape to protect her and her family’s identity from scorn and public shame. Nirbhaya also means “fearless one” in Sanskrit. The mural is not a memorial of victims of rape and oppression though. It’s an expression of praise and respect for women and the divine feminine, for individual and collective human value, and a symbol of love.
SW: I would imagine that being part of a group working together on a huge mural on the streets of New York is quite an experience for these kids. Do you feel it changes their lives?
CS: They change my life. It’s a great feeling when the impact is mutual. I’m often able to share that with the kids I work with. I hope it causes ripples that go beyond the individuals involved and beyond simply creating a beautiful work of art. Images and symbols carry with them a lot of transformative power, but the intention needs to coincide with the process in creating that imagery. When the kids are involved in the process from start to finish, they take pride in what they’ve collaborated on and it does impact their lives.
SW:You are both facilitator and lead artist. How do your balance these roles?
CS: During the design process I’m facilitating the workshops and brainstorming activities to generate ideas from the participants. Their ideas are what’s most important, not how well they can draw or paint. When it’s time to finalize a design for fabrication, they learn how to prepare it and scale up the artwork onto the wall. Both of these stages are important because one encourages critical thinking and creativity, and the other demonstrates how to see it through to completion.
SW:What is your first thought, after you step back from a mural and witness the final result?
CS: Mural painting is like giving birth, so to speak. It can be a little painful, but when it’s finished, it’s such a wonderful experience. Especially when you have others to share it with.
SW: There is a term in Yoga called seva, which means selfless service. Taking what is sacred and spiritual in you and sharing a spark that ignites others. Your mandala murals certainly sound like seva to me.
CS: Creativity and service are at their highest when they’re shared--when the act itself is a gift to everyone involved. Helping others, we help ourselves. The mandala represents this idea. The mandala is a part of me as much as I am a part of the mandala. We all are. It’s always been here.
For more about Chris's work, click here. To read more of Sharon Watts' work, click here.