circular mandala design with flowers, colored using shades of green, purple and yellow

By the fifth week of the COVID-19 telework ritual, some members of the UMB community were looking to the Artists’ Alliance affinity group for some creative direction to find solace in their art.

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On a good day, balancing creative endeavors while working full time can be a challenge. Finding that balance, or even tapping into your creative spirit, during a pandemic can sometimes seem impossible.

By the fifth week of the COVID-19 telework ritual, some members of the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) community were looking to the Council for the Arts & Culture’s Artists’ Alliance affinity group for some “creative counsel.” 

The Artists’ Alliance, which typically meets monthly, convened for a second time in April due to strong member interest. At a previous meeting, when discussing how our art has served many of us as a creative outlet during the shelter-in-place order, some membersy voiced  concerns that they had not been able to “clear their head space” to find solace in their art.

(See the artists' mandalas in a photo gallery below or online, and read about how to make a mandala.)

Alliance member Sailor Holobaugh, counselor and early childhood mental health consultant for the Center for Infant Study at the School of Medicine, took the lead and offered an informal Zoom teleconference opportunity for those experiencing this type of “mental block” to “harvest” our creative energies. 

The Zoom gathering started with a brief period of guided meditation to help members free our minds and get into a more physically relaxed state while focusing on our breathing. 

Next, Holobaugh directed the group to create word clouds using three words that we identified with that day. We placed each word in a hand-drawn oval (aka cloud) on our papers and then drew three “legs” on each cloud where, on each leg, we added an associated word. Holobaugh explained that each leg could then be divided further into three other branches, for a total of nine related words or phrases to guide a creative practice. I placed the word create in one of my clouds and added the words jumpstartworkflow, and ponder to the branches. 

The goal of this exercise was to provide “grist for the mill,” Sailor said, “to allow you to reflect and put labels on your feelings, thoughts, concerns, and questions.” 

Once the words were drafted, we each mentally selected one of the cloud words as our “focal word of the day” as we began our final guided activity. We used a circular object to trace a circle on a blank page in front of us. I chose to use my name printed in capital letters to create my image “structure.” 

Sailor outlined how we would creatively “doodle” a design in our structure to create a mandala — Sanskrit for “circle” or “discoid object.” Generally speaking, mandalas have deep religious meaning for multiple faiths — for example they hold a great deal of symbolism in Hindu and Buddhist cultures — either externally as a visual representation of the universe or internally as a guide for several practices that take place in many Asian traditions, including meditation. But for some people, they are simply a reflective practice used in art therapy. 

We each spent the next 15-20 minutes silently, while in each other’s “Zoom company,” filling in our structures — the only audible sounds were the birds chirping outside our windows and the occasional scratching noise from someone’s pencil shading their design. We focused intently on the task at hand. 

There were no hard rules imposed — after creating our structure, we each “played” mostly on the inside of the design using shape, line, repetition, and shading to formulate a design. Some were symmetrical, others were not. 

Holobaugh coached us. “Just see what happens. It might be hard to stop or it may be clear to you when your drawing is finished,” he said. 

At the end of the allotted time, we shared our creations. 

“I thought the session was very grounding, and it was wonderful to get into the flow with other creatives for a little while,” said Erin Barry-Dutro, administrative assistant, Family Welfare Research and Training Group at the School of Social Work. “Attendees seemed relaxed and excited about their creations at the end of the session.” 

It seemed as if time stood still for the hour we were together. We all noted that we actually had mentally broken away from our desk and our task lists.

Laura Broy, lead analyst for the Center for Information Technology Services, whose work appeared in the inaugural edition of 1807, UMB’s art and literary journal, said, “Creating my own mandala forced me to forget myself for a little while and focus on space, design, and color. This is my main goal as a painter, and therefore I found this exercise to be extremely rewarding. It’s easy to get lost in the process, and considering the times we are in, this is priceless.” 

“What a super workshop,” said Linda Simoni-Wastila, PhD, MSPH, professor and the Parke-Davis Chair of Geriatric Pharmacotherapy at the School of Pharmacy. “I started with the idea of wanting to break through the ‘gray sludge’ in my head — the worry , the stuff that has flooded my headspace and prevents creativity. Waves came to mind, and then I realized the curlicues reminded me of the fiddleheads unfurling in my urban garden. Spring. Water. The dam breaks!” 

Most of us felt inspired through the experience. Hopefully, a lot of “dams broke” and this will fuel the artists’ creativity for the weeks ahead while we try to work through this new normalcy in our daily lives. 

Dana Rampolla is the assistant director of marketing in UMB’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs and creative director and managing editor of 1807.

Balancing creative endeavors while working full time can be a challenge. Join your colleagues for monthly brown-bag lunches as we explore ways to make time for art, fight resistance and self-doubt, hold one another accountable to our creative goals, and celebrate our artistic successes! Free membership in the Artists’ Alliance is open to all UMB faculty and staff. 

If you are interested in directing a very informal artist Zoom workshop, please email ideas to Artists’ Alliance coordinator Erin Hagar at 

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