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The art of Melbourne-based yogi and artist Kara Mandel is a beautiful amalgamation of collected practises from a life lived authentically and with mindful purpose. Armed with a gentle, persistent curiosity and a commitment to deep self-inquiry, Kara has built a unique creative process around meditation, dance and sensuality which in turn informs her paint and paper creations.
Originally from the United States, Kara's creative and tactile nature won out over her original intention to study nutrition, instead choosing to complete a Bachelors degree in Painting and Printmaking in California. What started out as a therapeutic form of self-expression has now blossomed into a thriving practice, her work now sought out by collectors around the world and appearing in a rapidly growing list of solo and group exhibitions.
Kara's work is at once both spiritual and grounded in the physical, a curious balance stemming from how meditation and dance have profoundly impacted her perceptions of the world. Most of the visual symbology in Kara's work depicts the power and eros that resides in the female body and organic forms and textures found during long, healing walks in nature. Through these elements Kara explores deep. expansive themes of creation, myth and storytelling, release and collective identity.
Read on for more insight into Kara's work and creative process and to learn more about her exciting upcoming projects.
What were the most defining moments that urged you towards becoming a full-time artist?
There were a few moments. The first was that I had a supportive and engaged art teacher in high school who encouraged me time and time again to stick with my creative practice. I still have the note that he wrote when I graduated that said “Looking forward to congratulating you at your first solo exhibition.” Then during my first year at uni, I waffled about trying to decide what to study and chose nutrition because it seemed a safer option. A few months later, my dad passed away and my perspective of the world changed. As death often does, (and as terrifyingly cliché as it sounds) it reminded me of the impermanence and unpredictability of life. A week later, I committed to pursuing a formal education in the Arts.
The final moment was probably moving to Melbourne. Arriving here with few connections, and never having been to Australia before, it felt like a crossroads. I needed to build community and look for work from scratch, and I was separated from most that felt familiar. It was a scary but clear decision to pursue art as a career from that point. I do wonder if I would have had the courage or the will to pursue art professionally if I hadn’t left the familiar comfort of California.
Your recent exhibition In the Beginning at Off the Kerb Gallery was a deep dive into your fascination with creation stories and how myth and storytelling is foundational in shaping our personal narratives, identity, and culture. What draws you to explore these ideas?
The influential power of myth and story-telling that surges beneath the surface of our awareness, all the while shaping and informing our personal and collective evolution, is what allures me.
Quite often, myth and storytelling is underestimated, undervalued, and deemed frivolous or childish-- not dissimilar to mainstream perceptions of the importance of art for cultures as well--though in reality it’s what shapes our world. Story creates culture. It defines our collective symbols, ethics and values. It connects us; it speaks to our relationship with the human and more-than-human world.
Myth and Story are somehow deeply intimate and universal in their symbolic and metaphorical language. And what I appreciate most, is that symbolism within story leaves breathing room for each person’s unique flavour of perception, rather than simply telling the intention outright and imposing it directly on the audience or viewer.
Personally, I’m drawn to exploring symbols and mythic elements that celebrate and remind us of our innate connection with Earth, the cyclic nature of life, and the life force energy that flows through and connects each of us in a vast web of relationships we share with all the beings of this world.
As a seasoned yogi and advocate for dance as a powerful way to engage with our body and physical senses, how do you feel these practices are an important element in fostering creative drive?
Both practices have the potential to teach us how to intimately know the world around us through paying attention. If you’re present and embodied, you’re actually here to observe what is happening within you and around you. You’re more likely to absorb that sensory information and notice connections.
Aspects of these practices also have the capacity to draw us out of our conditioned minds and into states where we are more receptive to the world around us and new ways of thinking. And in the “trance” states possible in dance, asana, pranayama, and meditation, old neural pathways dissolve and new pathways emerge. I think all of these elements help foster curiosity, which in turn can spark inspiration and creative drive.
Would you say that meditation, or practices that facilitate the process of achieving a deep connection with oneself and nature, is essential for achieving the creative flow that is sometimes so frustratingly elusive for artists?
I can’t speak for anybody else, but practices that establish deep connection with the self and nature are absolutely necessary for me. These practices, whether they look like traditional seated meditation, dance, expressive play, ritual, wandering in nature, or deep listening, are the nutrient rich soil from which my life and creative practice grow. They nourish me, ground me and dissolve the boundaries and perceptions of myself as an “individual.” They entice me out of the constraints of the conditioned and egoic mind and tap me into a deep, ancient, embodied consciousness.
What were the most difficult challenges you’ve faced during your evolution as an artist, and how did you overcome them?
I think the most difficult challenge I’ve faced was my own projected expectations of perceived markers of success and what makes “worthwhile” or “meaningful” art.
These stories I internalised were very much shaped by the general “fastness” and capitalistic values of our culture. I was able to unravel these narratives through deeply connecting with nature. I witnessed different beings growing at their own pace, finding their own ecological niche, and doing so with such surety. In Nature, we witness the importance of diversity and the value of wildly different expressions and ways of being, which contrasts to the homogeneity that our culture places on a pedestal.
This untangling relieved me of so much pressure, and then, from this place, I have rediscovered my own values, from which I measure my goals, projects and markers of success.
What are some sources of inspiration that you return to time and time again? Are there any books, films or artists which have been fundamental to your creative and spiritual growth?
Ooh yes, I have a handful of resources that I return to quite often. My favourite set of stories is likely Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. If you appreciate wild imagination and surreal writing I cannot recommend this book enough! The short stories are funny, wild, beautiful and evocative. You can find “The Distance of the Moon” as read by Liev Shriver on Youtube. Other writers that have shaped my practice are: Clarrissa Pinkola Estes (Women Who Run With the Wolves), David Abram (Becoming Animal & Spell of the Sensuous), Tyson Yunkaporta, Sophie Strand, Robert Macfarlane, as well as the poets, Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke.
My favourite podcast is The Emerald: Currents and Trends Through a Mythic Lens which has an incredible way of zooming out and applying different lenses to the issues and challenges of our time. The host also looks back at historical myths and speaks to them through an animist lens, challenging our current interpretations of the stories.
Artists that have captured my imagination, and that I continually return to are Miroko Machiko, Emma Larrson, Hannah Yata, Tracey Emin, Louise Bourgeois, Grayson Perry. Though I’m sure the list could go on and on.
Your creative process incorporates so many different forms of expression and mediums, it seems to be less of a process and more a way of life. How do you define your creative process?
I guess I would define my creative process as an act of devotion to curiosity. Devotion in the sense that I trust, surrender, and open myself to what will reveal itself along the way as long as I remain curious and continue to follow the breadcrumbs.
Curiosity doesn't always require the fiery intensity of passion that while beautiful, can burn out just as quickly as it ignites. Curiosity can withstand quieter moments. And although I can’t bring forth inspiration on command, it is within my power to remain curious. I feel that this spirited dynamic between myself and the world around me nurtures my creative process.
Often the slow exploration I’ve come to recognise as curiosity yields inspiration that transcends my expectations, leading to artistic expression that feels ripe, rich, and deep.
As someone who has such a meaningful and intuitive connection to her creativity, what do you believe makes a piece of art or an artist “good”?
It’s all so subjective! Haha. But in regards to art-making, I think sometimes we can get so hung up on creating “good” art that we paralyse ourselves from taking action. Mostly, I think that in order to make “good” art, you’ve got to be willing to make “shit” art. It’s in that space of experimentation that beautiful mistakes happen or we experience unintended results, and as a consequence, learn and grow as artists.
What’s next for your creative practice? Are there any exciting projects or exhibitions in the mix for 2021?
Yes! I’m excited for what’s to come creatively in the next several months. I have a few projects that I have been tending to, and I’m eager to offer them to the world.
The first is a not-for-profit community program that has just launched and is dear to my heart. The Ecology of Us is a nature-based collaborative art project inviting participants to engage all of their senses to develop an intentional relationship with their local environment. It’s a celebration of the everyday magnificence of the nature that surrounds us, and is us. Myself and two others developed The Ecology of Us in response to the shared experience of existing in ‘hyper-connected’ times that have found us more disconnected from the natural patterns and rhythms of the world, and ourselves. After spending so much time working alone last year, I am elated to co-create with others and work towards building another facet of the nature-based creative community here in Melbourne. (For more information, see website here!)
In regards to my personal artistic practice, I’m bubbling away in my studio building a new body of work that I hope to exhibit early 2022. This is a series of embroidered watercolour paintings exploring threads of relationship and the queer, fluid nature of our world through abstracted biomorphic forms. It’s a fun challenge to create the paintings as it's an integration of all my previous works and all of the seemingly “separate” aspects of my artistic practice.
As well, I have been fortunate to be commissioned for a wonderful project illustrating adapted interpretations of visions channelled by the 12th century mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Her enraptured visions were psychedelic and ecstatic in their nature, so it has been an absolute pleasure to work with the ripe symbolism and imagery to create the paintings.
For collaboration or commission enquiries or to browse her lovely selection of prints, contact Kara through her website at www.karamandel.com. To keep up with her latest projects and see her post beautiful art, follow Kara on Instagram at @kara.mandel. Check out her newly launched community program The Ecology of Us here.