Since childhood, Day Schildkret has been obsessed with repurposing ordinary pieces of nature into art.
When he was 5, he gathered earthworms that had been displaced by rainstorms and helped them back into their “homes.” But this was more than just a search and rescue mission.
“I wouldn’t just save the worm, but I was more interested in making their homecoming look more beautiful,” Schildkret said. Drawn to decorating each wormhole with little sticks, berries and leaves, he organized his materials into symmetrical patterns, similar to a sand mandala.
“I had this beautiful constellation of wormhole mandalas on my front lawn,” he said. “I think that was my first memory of doing this practice.”
Now his talent is bringing the California-based artist to Minneapolis. On Friday, in a free event open to the public, he will create a large-scale “memory mandala” at Lakewood Cemetery. The mandala will be constructed entirely of materials he scavenges from the cemetery grounds.
The installation, part of a new string of immersive experiences produced by the cemetery, is likely to disappear quickly in this stormy summer. But that’s part of its allure.
“You see all the big [grave] stones screaming permanence, right?’ ” said Lakewood President Chris Makowske. “Well, the memory mandala by design is impermanent — it’s not going to last a long time.”
Makowske said that as the rain and wind wipe away the mandala, it will symbolize someone turning their grief over the loss of a loved one into beauty over time.
“It’s about bringing reflections of someone they’re thinking of and then designing art around that experience,” Makowske said. “Then helping themselves deal with what mortality means.”
A healing art
Mandalas, a spiritual symbol used in Buddhism, can take hours, days or even weeks to create. Shortly after creation, they are destroyed to align with Buddhist belief that nothing is permanent.
For Schildkret, making his mandalas from nature helped him master the art of healing and letting go. After a major breakup seven years ago, one that Schildkret describes as “where you’re just trying to find your footing again,” he began building his “morning altars” on a daily basis.
“One morning when I was walking the dog at dawn, the sun was just peeking on the horizon, I found these beautiful amber-colored mushrooms under this eucalyptus tree,” he said. “I guess it was a combination of the grief that I was feeling from the breakup and my love for making art that I just sat down and started to arrange the mushrooms and the bark into one of those patterns.”
Schildkret said the process gave him a chance to get out of his own head and work to understand his grief. After about two hours of creating, he felt a noticeable difference. “For the first time in five months it felt like my grief had lightened,” he said, “and I wasn’t so burdened by it.”
Eventually, Schildkret started sharing his work on social media and got an overwhelming, positive response.
“A truly remarkable thing happened from social media,” he said. “People would look at my art, and then that would compel them to go outside where they live and make something beautiful out of something happening in their lives.”
One particular story Schildkret remembers is when a fan wrote him saying that creating a mandala helped her feel closer to her mom on the anniversary of her death.
“She came across some pine cones and some foxstones. Then she arranged them into a beautiful pattern and made a beautiful morning altar.” Schildkret said. “She took a photograph of it and wrote her Instagram audience and me, saying that for the first time in 10 years she felt like she was communicating to her mother.”
Schildkret said he enjoys helping people work through their life transitions — be it birth, death, marriage or divorce — and that’s why he’s excited for his Lakewood event.
“It’s a perfect collaboration for my work because my art is all about memory,” he said.
Often asked why he creates art that is purposely not meant to last, Schildkret responds, “What’s the difference between my art and our lives?” He said if people better understood that life, including their own, is temporary, we would learn to value the time we have.
“When you realize that you only have one day to spend with your best friend or one day left with your dog, it makes that time you have left so much more valuable,” he said. “You don’t take it for granted.”
Makowske’s goals for the Lakewood event are clear: 1) get a conversation started about what it means to die, and 2) get the cemetery to become a gathering space for the living.
“We’re really hoping that it brings more people to the cemetery and they realize that the cemetery can be a resource for people,” Makowske said. “It doesn’t just have to be a boneyard.”
Schildkret, who has created well over 1,000 mandalas, said something in the universe signals to him when a project is complete.
“The sun starts to set, or the wind starts to come on really strong, or the flowers that I’m building with start to wither and die,” he said. “It’s very important for me as an artist to know when something is done so I can let it go. That’s part of the beauty of this practice.”