Interview with Al Silberstein
Head Museum Carpenter at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
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Question: How did this object come to be a part of the museum collection?
Al Silberstein: In 1991, the Tibetan monks of the Gyuto Tantric University came to the museum to create this sand painting for us. The idea was that we were going to attempt to make the mandala a permanent part of our collection, which had been tried a number of times before in other places, but with very little success because of a number of technical problems.
Were there other people involved in the technical process?
This whole project started out from the beginning in conjunction with 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company). 3M came up with some technologies that made this possible, including developing a sand, which was mixed with pigments. But as soon as you'd put something liquid on the sand, the pigments would run and you would just have this mess. So, 3M actually plasma-fused the color into the sand using a palette that the monks gave them. It's the same technology that makes the sparkles on your roof shingles.
How many colors were used?
3M worked with 12 colors or something like that. Then the monks would mix two or three colors together to achieve more gradation.
At what point in the process did you get involved?
One of the first things that I did was to build the platform that the mandala is on. It's a sandwich construction because we wanted to have this absolutely rigid surface with no flex in it. If this thing started flexing we could have big cookies of the mandala falling off when we flipped it up (laughs). So it was a sandwich of 3/4 inch plywood, foam, plywood, foam, plywood and just all bolted together all over the place so it was very, very sturdy.
I think the monks took two weeks to create the mandala. It was a public display. The platform was, like, 4 feet off the floor, and people would watch every day. The monks basically did the whole thing from memory, which was just astounding to me. After they were done, my job came in to try to figure out how to use this resin that 3M came up with to solidify and basically turn the mandala into an emery board (laughs) which is what it is now.
How did you go about it?
I got some sand, did some tests down in our spray booth in the basement and came up with a procedure, which I thought would work for this. Seeing that it have never been done before I was just kind of experimenting, but I think we figured out something that worked pretty well.
How did you apply the 3M resin?
What we ended up doing is building a big enclosure, basically a tent around the mandala while it was still flat, and we stood up on ladders, using low pressure spray equipment and just kind of let a fog settle down onto the mandala. We had a dilution of about 15% methacrylitic resin running through our gun. We fogged the thing, just to solidify the surface.
Was that all it took?
No. We took down the tent and proceeded to apply this resin with eyedroppers over the whole thing, which took weeks and weeks and weeks! But we had to do it that way because, if you look at the mandala, there's a lot of different depths of sand, and there's some places that were just a 16th of an inch thick and there are some places that are 3/4 or a whole inch thick.
We just didn't want to have any voids in it; we wanted to make sure we had it all saturated. So we sat there day after day, working on sections, and working our way around--my assistant and I.
Since it was lying flat, how did you get out over the center?
We had scaffolding on it, set very low, so we could move into the center, and work on that. It took a long time to do. Then every night we used an array of infrared lights on top that we used to basically bake the resin, to try to set it up a little bit better.
After we were done with all that, we painted the exterior of it because the blue areas had footprints and bolt holes and stuff so we had to doctor that up good. We painted the exterior of it, using oil paint basically. And voila, there you go.
Was this part of the process open to the public? Weren't there health issues with the resin?
No, when we started working on it, it was closed to the public and there were baffles [temporary walls] in front of the room. Then we started working on it and. our health, we're expendable of course (laughs).
Tell us about the moment at which you stood the thing up, and your expectations or nervousness about that.
Well, I mean, seeing that I had worked on this from the time the monks had left until when we flipped her up for the first time, it had to be 4 weeks or so, it was about a good month.
So we worked and worked and worked on this thing, and when the time came to flip it up I lost a lot of sleep, just thinking about the most horrible things that could possibly happen--like a big chunk of it just sliding off and crashing to the floor (laughs). But nothing happened. We flipped it up and it was heavy as hell, but we flipped it up and put it on a cart.
I think everybody was astounded. I was! I was surprised. I don't think we lost a grain of sand off the thing. And it's been there for 8 or 9 years now, and looks exactly like it did when we finished it. So, I think 3M must've done a bang up job with their technology!
The way it's displayed now, there's a trough down there, and if sand were to fall off of it, we'd see evidence.
There's not a lot of sand at the bottom of it right now. I don't think there's much at all, so it's been holding up pretty good over the course of time.
It's a nice addition to the museum and it didn't cost a lot of money. People really like it, you know?
Has anyone done such a thing since this 1991 project?
I've gotten phone calls from other institutions around the country about going down and preserving their mandalas. And I've often thought of starting my own business, like "Mandalas R Us" or something like that (laughs). But 3M doesn't seem to really want to get into the business of making materials for the preservation of sand mandalas you know, so this is purely an experimental sort of basis.
This is, as far as I know right now, pretty much the only one. I know it's been tried since then, but with limited success. And I don't think anybody's done one on this scale. There's been like, little tiles, basically, and very small sections but I think this is the only one that's 8 foot across, so it's pretty impressive.
Were there any big surprises?
Yeah, there was one thing--the one mistake that was made. I mean, 3M did a bang up job in coming up with everything. The only thing is that they didn't fuse white into the white sand, and the only thing that makes the white sand look white is the air spaces between the grains. So as soon as we filled up the air spaces with resin, it turned clear. So you could see the bottom. You could see all the layers. You could see everything and it looked kind of bad.
So it was a matter of coming up with some way of making it white again, while still retaining the grains of the sand, and not having it look like it was just painted. I came up with a mixture of flake-white pigment, really highly pigmented but with a lot of solvent in it. We basically applied it with a brush over all the white areas so it ran down, through capillary action, into and around the sand and everything. That took a long time too. That was a real pain in the butt.Still, it's amazing it went as smoothly as it did.
Like I said, nobody had ever done it before. We had never done anything like this before. 3M had never done anything like this before so, I mean, you kind of had the attitude that when we were working on it, we were doing something that was pretty special.
But, you know what? If we screwed it up--c'est la vie, you know? I mean, nobody expected it to work out as well as it really did, especially when the monks were done with it. We couldn't touch the thing or jiggle it or anything. You didn't want to.
Actually, this woman dragged a camera strap through it after the monks were finished and destroyed a section of the mandala. Fortunately the monks were still in town--this is before we got to work on it--and they had the pigments and the sand, and they had a couple guys come out and do an emergency touch-up operation on the mandala.
But now it's going to stay where it is.
The resin was amazing to work with. It didn't stink a lot or anything. It's an acrylic-based resin. You could file your fingernails on the thing now. It is really, really quite rugged. And I think everybody was a little bit surprised when we were done with it, by how resilient it is.
Did the monks do anything differently because of the preservation process?
In the raised areas, in the center of it, there are those walls, and they have the ring around it. I think the monks normally build those things from clay, but since we knew we were going to be displaying it vertically, we made those out of wood and just glued and nailed them to the surface. And then the monks worked on that surface that we had created. But, god bless them, they did a great job. And it looks exactly like one of the originals.
Don't they normally destroy mandalas when they're finished?
There was some controversy about the fact that we were saving this. A lot of people thought it was kind of politically incorrect. Traditionally they're supposed to be a temporary object, and they're supposed to be brushed into a stream and it's done. But I think the monks have got this attitude that their culture is fairly threatened right now and this is a way for them to have something that would be more permanent, and tell their story. And their sponsors here also felt that way so they were all behind it.
So there you go, there's your Tibetan sand mandala!
Not your typical museum carpentry job!
It's one of those once in a lifetime sort of things. It doesn't happen every day.