The art of beach mandalas with Sue Norman

Interview by: Olivia Williams

As a retired counsellor and art therapist, Sue has touched countless lives through her therapeutic guidance. For over 30 years, she has led meditation groups, providing individuals with a path to inner peace and self-discovery. But Sue’s talents extend beyond the realm of therapy; she’s also a loving mother to two amazing adults, a doting grandmother to four wonderful grandchildren, and a fervent advocate for the positive impact of art on individuals of all ages.

In her ‘mature’ years, Sue has discovered a remarkable synergy between her diverse life experiences, culminating in what she fondly calls ‘sandalas.’ These intricate creations blend the artistry she honed from a young age, the therapeutic wisdom gained from years of counseling, and the serenity cultivated through decades of meditation. Sue’s sandalas are more than just visually stunning; they are a unique tool for personal transformation, offering individuals of all ages a path to greater calm, balance, and self-awareness.

Join us as we chat with Sue about her inspiring journey and explore the world of sandalas, where art, therapy, and meditation converge to create something truly remarkable.

Can you tell us more about how you first discovered your passion for creating beach mandalas? 

I’d been living in NZ for a few years and when I moved back to Adelaide, I found my new home by Brighton Beach. I spent my days on the beach while I felt into what I’d like to do next in life. I started doodling in the sand and surprisingly mandalas started to evolve. I loved the meditative feeling I experienced while creating them and as they grew larger, I realized the beach was like a giant canvas. A real draw for an artist! The larger the mandalas grew the more balanced and happy I felt. I also noticed the same effect in people who stopped to watch.

When I first started creating sandalas, I was gifting one a week to the community. They were embraced by people of all ages and nationalities.

When COVID appeared, the sandalas became the gift to give family when you couldn’t be with them for special occasions. I received commissions from all over the world for over 2 years and was creating up to 5 sandalas a week. I felt so honoured to be asked to connect families in this unique way.

Working with nature and the elements can be unpredictable. Have you encountered any unexpected challenges or surprises while creating your sandalas, and how did you adapt to them?

The tides and weather can always be unpredictable even though I study both before heading to the beach. It’s only if there’s a downpour or very high winds that I need to postpone. But that’s only happened a few times. After a storm the beach may be covered in seaweed. I’ll either rake it or find a clear spot. It all just adds to the creativity in the moment.

Each beach mandala you create is unique. What factors influence your choice of design and patterns for a particular mandala, and do you draw inspiration from any specific sources or traditions?

I’ve created over 600 sandalas during the past 7 years and as you’ve mentioned, each has been unique. I don’t tend to draw inspiration from any specific sources, however when I’m creating, I feel specific designs come to me which are similar to more traditional mandalas. 

When I’m preparing to create a non-specific sandala, it’s all feeling in the moment and allowing inspiration with no planning or measuring tools.

Firstly, I stand on the sand and breathe. I fall into a calm, meditative space and connect to my surrounds. I let my mind go and my imagination blends with the space. The beach is wonderful for allowing inspiration. From that moment I begin to feel the designs and just ‘play’.

Because each design is felt and not planned, each round of the mandala stays balanced and circular in shape as it grows to up to 14 meters.

Many people gather to watch you carve these beach mandalas. How do you feel about the public’s interest and engagement with your art?

To be honest I’m quite shy so at first the crowds were rather unsettling. However, when I began to focus on creating the sandala rather than my emotions it was fine. Now, I no longer seem to be affected by all the onlookers and I love chatting with people who stop to watch. The locals are so supportive, and they’ve become like a ‘beach family’ to me. Even some of the local dogs run up and drop their balls for me to throw. 

Sand mandalas are known for their impermanence. How do you feel about the fact that your creations will eventually be washed away by the tide? 

I enjoy the impermanence of the sandalas. For me, life isn’t meant to be inflexible, it’s meant to be constantly changing and expanding.  Some days I wander back in the afternoon to watch the tide draw the sandala into the waves. How does it affect me? I feel the expansion from allowing new potentials. It makes me smile. 

Beyond the visual aesthetics, do your beach mandalas hold any deeper meanings or messages that you hope viewers will take away from them?

The sandalas are so much more than visual art. The process for both the creator and viewer is naturally meditative. It’s like the process creates a safe space for all to potentially let go of their issues and take time to just be in the moment.

The ‘meaning’ of the sandala tends to be different for each person. Like with most art it depends on how deeply a person chooses to feel. Some people watch for part of the creation and others feel the process deeply and stay for the whole process.

While at least one person is enjoying and ‘feeling’ the sandalas I’ll continue to create for us both. 

You have mentioned that you’re open to guiding others or groups in creating their own beach mandalas. What is the experience like for those who want to get involved in this artistic process?

I love teaching mandala art whether it be on paper, chalking pavements, using organic materials in a garden or on the sand. I’ve never had a tool that balances emotions and inspires imagination as easily as creating a mandala can.

I especially love showing others how to create sandalas. There’s a magic point when a person goes ‘off the page’ and creates on an unusually large scale. You can see the obvious freedom in their art and their movements from that point of release.

You create beach mandalas both for yourself and by commission. Could you elaborate on the process of creating commissioned mandalas for special occasions like birthdays and weddings? How do you tailor each one to suit the occasion?

I greatly enjoy creating commissioned work. It adds a different dimension to the sandalas. Once I’m contacted by a client, we discuss the type of sandala, the occasion and the wording they’d like. If it’s for a birthday I ask about the person’s likes and interests to establish a feel about them.
I’ve also created wedding proposals, business logos, and special occasion sandalas. The public seem to particularly enjoy the ANZAC sandalas I do annually.

Personally, I particularly enjoy creating memorial sandalas. I enjoy hearing about the person’s life and their passions, achievements and interests. It’s all very personal and I’m honoured to be trusted to bring the families feelings and memories into a meaningful expression.

Could you share some insights into your future plans or upcoming projects involving beach mandalas? 

As an artist who seeks and allows new expressions, there’s always something new on the horizon to expand my artistic passions. There are a few exciting projects that I can’t share yet, so you’ll have to keep an eye on my social media pages.


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