On Mondays, We Draw Mandalas

Deborah Huelsbergen encourages students to “focus, calm, create and repeat” in her creative and meditative Honors College tutorial.

These days, it might seem hard to find a tangible community amid the Zoom calls. With mute buttons and cameras that can be turned off, one might assume that a virtual world creates barriers between students and professors.

This wasn’t the case, however, when I dropped into Deborah Huelsbergen’s Monday morning Zoom class called, “Mandalas-Focus, Calm, Create, Repeat.” Huelsbergen, an MU Curators Professor of Art, greeted each student by name, asking about their weekends and discussing new projects. Around the class, majors, interests and personalities differed, and the students settled into their artwork.

Portrait of Deborah Huelsbergen and her dogs.
MU Curators Professor of Art Deborah Huelsbergen embraces the therapeutic side of art.

The word “mandala” is a Sanskrit term which, literally translated, means “circle” or “completion.” Mandalas have been used as symbolic and religious objects in many cultures. They have also been shown to be beneficial as a form of meditation and self-expression through art therapy. 

The mandala class has a different theme each week to inspire students as they draw their mandalas. This week’s theme was “kindness.” Students upload mandalas to a group discussion board on Canvas and submit a weekly reflection of interpretations and themes.

“The best thing about (the students) is they’re so good about not being tied to ‘OK, a mandala has to be a circle or a mandala has to have these radiating lines,’ ” Huelsbergen says. “They just sort of do whatever feels good and that’s the best part, because then everything is unique and interesting.”

Multicolored mandala
A mandala created by Tessi Muskrat Rickabaugh inspired by the theme “kindness” and Desmond Tutu’s quote, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

So what is it that makes drawing mandalas a worthwhile endeavor? For senior journalism major Samantha Verdisco (Tampa, Florida), it’s an opportunity to de-stress and enjoy herself.

 “I’ve doodled forever, since I was a little kid, and my teachers hated it. In this class, I get honors credit for doing what I’ve always done,” Verdisco says. “I look forward to this class every week. In fact, I love Mondays now because of this class.”

This is the third section of the mandala class that Huelsbergen has taught, but she says that mandalas have been a part of her life for years.

“I teach a lot of workshops. And then I was talking to somebody in the Honors College about doing a tutorial, and I just knew that this was what I wanted to do,” Huelsbergen remembers. “I was thinking about Honors students and the ones I talked to were so high-stress that I thought, what if I could teach something that, at least from my point of view, might help people find an outlet to be a little bit calmer.”

The class encourages students to discover the calming powers of drawing repetitive lines and patterns. 

“That’s my first ever trinity knot right there,” says junior religious studies and women and gender studies major Tessi Muskrat Rickabaugh (Fulton, Missouri), pointing to a specific section of her mandala in class. “That’s pretty darn good,” replies Huelsbergen. “I love knotted things.”

Muskrat Rickabaugh has created many mandalas, even expanding her experience outside of class by making a private Facebook group with two of her sisters and her mom to create their own mandalas and write reflections together.

Black and white mandala
A mandala created by Deborah Huelsbergen.

“Seeing my sisters and my mom create this art has been really really neat,” Rickabaugh says. “We are often looking for ways to connect because we live across the country from each other. We connect by learning things and expressing things.”

Heulsbergen’s class will again be available for students in the Spring 2021 semester. She notes that no drawing background is required, just an open mind and a willingness to create. To apply to this section, or to any other Honors College tutorials, fill out an application by Friday, Nov. 13.