Making Mandalas Means Spiraling into Control

Wendy Barnes doesn’t skip stone details.
Photo by Morgan Ford

Wendy Barnes grew up in Montauk, a small fishing village at the tip of Long Island, where her father was a charter-boat captain and her mother was an antiques dealer and painter. Her grandmother, uncle, and cousins were all painters, too.

“Mom took my sister and me on sketching outings from the time I was very small,” she says. “We were always doing art projects, and were taught to see the world through a painter’s eye.”

Barnes is a career arts educator. She brought a multimedia approach to Carolina Day School’s “Summer Quest” day-camp program, where she taught clay, painting, improv, art history, and sketching. And she led similar classes at Francine Delany New School, Asheville’s oldest charter school.

Then, for ten years, she taught art and theater at another K-8 charter, Evergreen Community School, where she began helping students make mandalas — geometric diagrams that condense universal messages — in nature and on paper. “The focus had a wonderful effect on the kids,” says Barnes. “As they were working on them, conversations sprang up that were very therapeutic. We eventually created a large mandala in permanent paint on the lower playground, and made up games to go with [it].”

Barnes also zeroed in, for a while, on animal rescue, helping bring to Asheville 114 pets rescued from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. “We reunited several dogs and cats with their parents and found homes for the rest. I had everyone I knew in Asheville and at Evergreen fostering,” she reports.

Through it all, she continued to medium hop — working in oils and clay, wiring together jewelry. And then came the stones. The summer before last, Barnes had to euthanize three of her own cats, for what she says were unfixable health issues. To honor these pets, and for the deceased pets of others, she began creating mandalas as memorial stones. Painting on a porous, weather-vulnerable surface required a learning curve — “it’s challenging, but also refreshingly different from canvas,” she notes.

Each mandala begins with a dot in the center, and the symmetry spreads out from there. “I paint in rings around that middle dot and form them concentrically as I go. It’s very much an organic process. The shape of the stone dictates a lot,” she explains. She also claims that each rock tells her what it wants to be. Once the painting is finished, she seals the stone twice with varnish so that it can “live” — either outside in the garden, or indoors next to a houseplant, or holding down papers on an office desk. 

Barnes entered her latest artistic phase with a large collection of stones, ones she pocketed herself on various trips around the world. Now family members ease that part of the journey. Her daughter gives her stones from the Willamette River in Oregon, and her sister, who still lives in Montauk, sends her specimens that are mandala-ready: smooth and rounded by their long tumble down the coastline. 

Painted stones can be memorial pet markers or focus tools for kids.
Photos by Morgan Ford

Wendy Barnes, Westside Artist Co-Op, 726 Haywood Road. For more information, call 828-365-8033 or see

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