As noted last month, the 9/11 Museum has acquired Beyond September 11, a book by artist and longtime BFA Advertising and BFA Design faculty member Adrienne Leban, for its collection. To find out more about the project and Leban’s process, SVA Close Up recently got in touch with her for an interview.
Leban has been making mandalas—symbolic works intended for spiritual and meditative use—since 1971. Not long after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, she began creating them as a way, she said, “to situate the September 11 tragedy in context with other profound conflicts which arise from issues of difference—political, cultural, religious, ethnic, gender—all kinds. I designed [them] to stimulate the experience of unity and wholeness while accepting the existential necessity of difference.”
Before being collected together as a book-length work, many of Leban’s mandalas were used by the nonprofit organization 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows in its antiwar events; they were exhibited as 4.5 x 5′ posters at venues such as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the Judson Memorial Church. This was in keeping with Leban’s longstanding practice of integrating her art and design work with her social activism: her Lifework Studio provides “creativity tools” and instruction designed to aid artists of all levels and interests, and her Post No Bull movement, which came out of the Design for Social Change course she created and teaches at SVA, promotes advertising and design works that advocate for environmental protection, political engagement, greater consumer awareness, and reducing income inequality, among other concerns.
Was there anything in particular that inspired you to start making mandalas?
I work from my solar plexus, the center of my energy, which directed working from the center. I drew mandalas before I knew they were mandalas.
Do you have a set process for creating a mandala, or is it largely intuitive?
Almost all of my work is intuitive. I think about a subject for a while before I start the visual form, but do not have any images in mind. I like to experience the revelation that comes.
The works in this book were created on the computer, but you also make intricate, geometrically inspired freehand drawings. What are the pros and cons, for you, of working on the computer versus pen and paper?
I love the computer. I started working on it in 1983 and made animations using the programming language BASIC. Some of my 1983 animations can be seen at adrienneleban.com. I can do more iterations and transformations on the computer in less time than by hand. But after a while, I feel disembodied, so I switch to pen and paper to get my body back.
Has working on the computer informed your hand-drawn works at all?
I don’t think so. Rather, my geometric hand-drawn work, which I began in 1971, has informed my computer work. My early work anticipated the computer, especially my use of gradients and, later, geometric solids in my paintings of the early 1980s.
Some of the mandalas in the book seem to create optical illusions: radiating colors or gently undulating. Were these effects intended, or were they “happy accidents”?
They are epiphenomena—unintended but welcome consequences. This happens in much of my work, hand-drawn and computer. I can’t intentionally produce them.
What lesson would you want your students to take from a project like Beyond September 11?
I have always advocated using graphic design and advertising for important issues instead of selling useless, covertly harmful commercial products. Beyond September 11 demonstrates that principle which I have taught for 45 years in both my Originality course, Design for Social Change, and the former foundation course my department offered, called Media Communications.
To see more of Leban’s work, and to purchase copies of Beyond September 11 or individual prints, visit adrienneleban.com.
All images from adrienneleban.com.