Carroll University's 'The Catalyst Project' Bids Maxon Hall Farewell With the Sand Mandala Treatment

May. 25, 2014
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"Death and taxes," is the classic, glib attempt to enumerate life's certainties. A more sober and somber response differs only in omitting the latter conjunct. For some the inevitability of death is a source of crippling despair. Woody Allen, for example, has made a career of filtering this despair through his sense of humor. But this maneuver is nothing new; bluesmen have long sung of "laughing just to keep from crying." 

Others have appealed to our rationality, as opposed to our funny bone, in their treatment of death. No surprise: they've often been philosophers. The Hellenistic school of Stoicism was preoccupied with determining the proper relationship to death. This preoccupation yielded practices intended to cultivate a philosophically approved attitude. For instance, Epictetus (c. A.D. 50-130) taught that "in moments when you are taking delight in something, call to mind the opposite impressions. What harm is there if you whisper to yourself, at the very moment you are kissing your child, and say, ‘Tomorrow you will die’?"

I cite these disparate examples in order to suggest that brooding on death is not necessarily a mark of morbidity, but rather a universal cultural activity by which communities come to a decision about the meaning of death for life.

Of course, 'death' is only a placeholder for the pervasive phenomena of human finitude and the transience of things. Consequently, we also require ways of coming to terms with the loss of things made of brick and mortar, in addition to those made of flesh and blood.

This seems to be the impetus behind "The Catalyst Project". Here's the deal: Carroll University's Maxon Hall is not long for this world. Built in 1961, Maxon Hall is slated to be demolished in order to make way for a state-of-the-art science facility.

But before the building is razed, the University has decided to give it the mandala treatment. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition the sand mandala is an exercise in inuring oneself to the ephemerality of life. Over the course of days or even weeks, elaborate designs incorporating geometric shapes and spiritual iconography are painstakingly crafted out of colored sand. Soon after completion the mandala is ceremonially destroyed, like a flower that wilts as soon as it blooms.

Carroll University, in turn, has called upon local and regional artists to regard Maxon Hall as a canvas. The artists have two days to make their mark before the works are unveiled in a reception on May 30 from 5-9 p.m. This wake will feature food, music, a cash bar, and art supplies so that, if I may adapt the aforementioned blues trope, attendees may paint just to keep from crying.


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