Sands of Time


E. Best

This canvas and I go back a-ways, to the late 90s. I first saw it at a needlepoint store in New Canaan, CT. I was with my German Shepherd puppy, and went to check out this new needlepoint store. I saw the mandala canvas and immediately thought of the rather enjoyable period in my life when I worked at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. I don’t know why I didn’t just buy the canvas, at the time.  Maybe it was because the little puppy was car sick that day, and I had to get him home. Whatever the reason, I didn’t end up purchasing this beautiful work of art. But I’ve thought about this canvas, often, over the years — and finally bought it while at the Dallas Needlepoint show in April of this year.

Front view of the American Museum of Natural H...

Front view of the American Museum of Natural History (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my projects at the AMNH was to publicize the six-week construction of a Tibetan Sand Mandala, during the summer of 1988, by a number of Buddhist monks from the Namgyal Monastery.  They painstakingly created it with colorful grains of sand. The ritual was a spectacle to behold.  It was a publicist’s dream: the news stories generated was the size of the Manhattan phone book. Over fifty thousand visitors came to see this very special exhibition.

It had an amazing effect on everyone who came to watch the monks silently assemble their masterpiece. I still remember clearly one example of this.  The AMNH, unlike its stodgy counterpart, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, across the Park, was known for being very tolerant of spirited young children. Once those rowdy youngsters stepped into the room where the mandala was being assembled, they were transfixed, absolutely mesmerized — you could hear a pin drop. Many print and TV reporters brought their own children, repeatedly, to see this elegant spiritual exercise unfold. Mandalas were historically done in secret, but the Dalai Lama gave his blessing to make their cultural traditions available to the world, before those traditions became extinct from the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

If you think of needlepoint, as I often do, as a sort of  Zen-like pursuit, then this canvas is the closest representation that I can equate to the devotion and care the monks took working on the mandala during that summer. Every painted stitch on this canvas has been skillfully applied, much as each individual grain of sand was meticulously placed by the monks. Don’t get me wrong, every canvas that is stitch-painted is done with care, time, and accuracy — but this one, to me, because of its subject matter, captures this spirit particularly well.

Alas, I don’t know which mandala this canvas represents*, but the one at the Museum was the “Wheel of Time” or Kalachakra mandala. In fact, one of my favorite headlines about it was entitled, “Sifting the Sands of Time”. Shockingly, to our western culture, upon completion of the mandala, the monks led a ceremonial procession to the Hudson River and threw it into its swirling waters. In their spiritual beliefs, that act represented the temporal nature of life.

This is one place where the monks and I part ways:  you can rest assured that, when I finish stitching this canvas, that I shall have it framed, and hanging on a wall.

There is spirituality, too, in wanting to share with others the results of one’s handiwork.

© Erin McGrath and, 2012 – 2016.

* NB. After talking with Eileen Best, it became clear that this canvas is part of the Kalachakra (or Wheel of Time) mandala.

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