The “circle of life” is a concept as old as any philosophy or religion. Every living thing experiences a perpetual cycle of birth, existence and death that nurtures the next generation, which repeats it, ad infinitum.
As medical illustrator Tim Phelps observes in the first volume of his biodiversity-celebrating circular artworks, Nature Mandalas: Wonders of the Garden (Schiffer, 2016), the word “mandala” is Sanskrit for “circle.” A second volume pays tribute to the wonders of the earth, wind and sea.
The mandala, a round centerpiece of Hindu, Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan beliefs, “is a symbol of one’s own center, providing a path for understanding oneself, accepting oneself, feeling comfortable with oneself and completing life with oneself,” writes Phelps, associate professor in the school of medicine’s Department of Art as Applied to Medicine.
His digitally created mandalas of nature combine realism and symbolism. Direct scientific observation and study of the depicted organisms form the foundations of the representational aspect of each piece. The entire project, initially not planned for publication but produced purely for Phelps’ pleasure, took more than three years, with each mandala requiring eight to 10 hours to create.
In Wonders of the Garden, Phelps showcases 72 mandalas that depict flowers, butterflies, moths, beetles, bugs and spiders. Nature Mandalas: Wonders of the Earth, Wind, and Sea features 70 mandalas of reef and sea creatures, fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds, as well as a few reflecting on “completing the circle,” with images symbolizing death, the Latin American Day of the Dead, and various totems and Native American medicine bundles.
The plants and animals depicted in these mandalas are accompanied by his descriptions of their form and structure, habitat, importance to medicine and science, and role in the crucial conservation mission for which Phelps is an eloquent advocate. He writes, “By recognizing, embracing and conserving nature’s circles of life, we can create reciprocal ripples that have a profound effect on the meaning and gift of life on our earth.”