Lobsang Samten’s sand painting is beautiful, but it is not for sale or permanent display. The sand mandala he is creating at the USM Art Gallery doesn’t even belong to him.

“It is like a cake for Mother Earth,” said the Tibetan artist. “The idea is that sand comes from Earth, so we give it back to the Earth.”

This Wheel of Life mandala is a 2,600-year-old design made by using colored sands to paint scenes in a series of rings. The mandala represents the universe and the scenes in each ring symbolize different stages of life.

Samten’s work began Thursday as part of the Tibetan art exhibit being held at the gallery through March 9. The exhibit, titled “When Horses Have Wings: Tibetan Artists in Exile,” includes works by exiled Tibetan artist and teacher Sonam Choephel as well as paintings by some of Choephel’s former students. Those works are for sale, and proceeds will go to the Friendship Painting Organization to benefit students of the Tibetan Homes Foundation School in Mussoorie, India, according to exhibit co-curator Suzanne Lee.

The exhibit is part of the of the University’s 2001-2002 convocation, “Diaspora: Meanings of Home.”

The mandala, about 4 feet wide when completed, will take about two weeks to finish, after which the sand will be swept up and deposited in a yet-to-be-determined river during a ceremony conducted by Tibetan monk Lobzang Tsetan at 1 p.m. Saturday March 9.

Samten, himself a former monk, was the first to make a mandala outside of Tibet when he painted one in New York City in 1988. He has since painted mandalas across the United States, including one at the Maine College of Art (MECA) in 1995, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts.

Dana Sawyer, professor of art at MECA, said that the finished painting is not the goal.

“Spirituality, that is what the art is all about,” said Sawyer. “It’s not about personal expression.”

The short life of a mandala is also symbolic of Tibetans’ loss of their homeland. Samten said he himself escaped from Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959 at the age of 7. He returned only once, under heavy restrictions.

“I went just briefly, on a two-week visa,” he said. Samten still has relatives in Tibet.

Sawyer said there is a bright side to the occupation of Tibet. The scattering of the Tibetan people brought the culture and art of a once-isolated country to the West.

“The happy part of this is, Lobsang is here demonstrating sand painting,” he said.

The workspace is a high orange platform resembling a square four-post bed. Colorful tapestries hang from the top and four spotlights, one in each corner, are aimed at Samten’s perch on the platform.

Samten sits cross-legged on a cushion while he works. On either side of him is a tray with cups of sand, each a different color. He uses long tubular funnels called chakpo to sprinkle the sand onto the painting.

The sands traditionally come from the Himalayan Mountains, but Samten does not discriminate.

“The sand is purified during a blessing ritual,” Samten said, lifting a cup of ivory gray sand. “This is from Reno (Nev.).”

So what happens if one sneezes during the creation of the mandala? It’s all in the breathing.

“This is a meditation,” said Samten. “Interesting-when you control the breathing, that controls the mind.”

Samten will work on the painting during the extended gallery hours through Feb. 7: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.,

Arts and Entertainment Editor Scott Marcoux can be contacted at: [email protected]

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