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Connections converge at Roberts Creek mandala

‘It’s like a temple for the community’
At the Roberts Creek mandala, Robert, Yohanna, and Abey Marion with Pamela Messner reflect on the work of hundreds of contributors.

The mandala at the mouth of Roberts Creek, remade annually in a tradition that began 26 years ago, exerts a force of gravity unlike most two-dimensional artworks. 

“It’s like a temple for the community,” said Robert Marion, who put the finishing touches on this year’s circular design on July 30. Marion paints an original motif on the pavement near the Roberts Creek pier before inviting hundreds of volunteers to fill it with original content. 

“There are families where it just becomes their tradition in the summer to come and paint,” added Marion. He and his wife Yohanna were married at the site. This year their son Abey, a Grade 3 student at Roberts Creek Elementary School, assisted with pressure washing. 

“I like [helping with the mandala] because I get to see all my friends,” said Abey. 

“It anchors people back to the community and reminds them why they live here,” added Pamela Messner, who has been involved since 2002, the height of the project’s early guerilla-art days. Messner now juggles event insurance, grant applications to buy supplies, and meal donations for a core team of 10 volunteer coordinators.  

The rules are simple: nobody is paid for their time, logos and text are disallowed, and barefoot artists must keep vigilant to sidestep patches of wet paint. 

This year, 743 panels outlined in white paint were up for grabs. After three weeks of effort by contributors, their contents range from jubilant abstracts to mirthful dragons. Individual segments are anchored by whorls of a latticework crafted to evoke forest fungi linked by branch-like mycelium. 

The design process itself is organic: Marion starts with a basic concept that evolves in situ. For the mycelium-inspired concept, he started sketching hexagons. “I just wanted to draw these because I thought they looked so great,” he said, “but I found out they cover certain kinds of [mushroom] spores.” 

The interconnected, brilliantly-coloured mushrooms are an apt metaphor for the attachment that participants make to the mandala — and each other.  

“It brings them a sense of serenity,” explained Messner, “and one thing people really love is having an opportunity to meet people while they’re out here painting that they may never have met otherwise.” Before COVID-19, a couple travelled each year from Spain to paint. For nearly a decade, a contributor from Texas has come to contribute. He’s now in talks with Marion about how they can initiate a mandala project in the former’s hometown of Galveston. 

In addition to laying the groundwork for hundreds of contributors, Marion will also claim a panel or two. This year, he added an image of Brock O’Byrne, founder of the Roberts Creek Tai Chi Association, who died in March. The portrait’s blue eyes sparkle with the exuberance that O’Byrne expressed as a local bass guitarist and entrepreneur. 

The 2023 mandala was dedicated by Marion to his father, Bob Marion, a retired teacher and principal. “He raised four boys through all the sports and homework and camping and fishing trips,” recalled Marion, “but also taught us all drawing and painting from a young age. Without my parents’ true love of art and music I may not have reached artistic goals or ever had the desire to make creativity accessible in the way we do at the mandala.” 

The completed mandala is the hub of the Roberts Creek Daze festival, which will take place on Sunday, Aug. 13.