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Artistry and healing: Zentangle exhibition returns to Whitinsville

July 2022

Read the full article in the Telegram & Gazette

WHITINSVILLE — Beyond the pen strokes and the patterns of lines and swirls are stories – of hope, inspiration, courage and contentment – and a number of those are on display at the “Beyond Zentangle” exhibit in the Spaulding R. Aldrich Heritage Gallery at Alternatives’ Whitin Mill.  

The exhibit brings together about 30 pieces of Zentangle-inspired pieces in various forms, some on the traditional tiles, some on fabric and wood, and another on an Oru Kayak, almost every possible space covered in swirling patterns. 

“We did a call for Zentangle artists to go beyond the tile,” explained Cristi Collari, director of community outreach for Open Sky Community Services, referring to the traditional square paper that is often used for Tangling. What resulted, she said, was art that is “so gorgeous, it literally hangs itself.” 

ValleyCAST, the arts and cultural arm of Open Sky, opened the exhibit on June 30, which coincided with the kick-off to the summer concert series featuring music from Samuel Bowan and also the Blackstone Valley Community Concert Band. About 200 people attended the concert and opening reception, including Zentangle founders Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts, who live in Whitinsville.  

Many of the artists featured in the show also attended the reception, said Collari. One of the artists, Lara Williams, used to work for Alternatives Unlimited (which later merged with The Bridge of Central Massachusetts to become Open Sky) and flew in from her current home in Indiana to attend the event. Williams, who took the very first course to become a CZT (Certified Zentangle Teacher), has several pieces on display — a pair of Tangled sneakers, a pottery bowl and a mixed media tree diorama.  

Zentangle founders Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts established the method in 2003.

This is the second time the organization has hosted a Zentangle exhibit — the first was nearly 20 years ago when Thomas and Roberts were just beginning what would eventually become an art form known all over the world. The couple had been longtime supporters of Alternatives — in fact, one of the first Zentangle classes they did was held there for about 100 people. Collari wanted to do another Zentangle show and felt that summertime, bookended with the concert series, would be perfect for the exhibit.   

“ValleyCAST is the arts and culture arm of Open Sky Community Services. We create events that people of all abilities can enjoy together,” Collari said. “We’re trying to create community for the people we serve, and a way to do that is through the arts.” 

Zentangle is based on an eight-step method of creating structured patterns, but is non-representational — it doesn’t teach how to draw people, places or things. Rather, it allows those of all artistic levels to creative beautiful images with combinations of dots, lines, simple curves, S-curves and orbs, as well as just a few tools — a pencil, black pen and a white 3.5-inch tile paper. 

“There’s a deep background of art and experience and spirituality, but we do keep it light and non-doctrinal,” Roberts said. 

The art of Zentangle is unplanned and abstract, to allow people to focus on each stroke and not the result. It is also rooted in the idea that there are no mistakes when Tangling, which is why the kits do not include erasers.  

“There are only new opportunities,” Thomas said, noting that there are no critiques, only compliments, in Zentangle. “As an artist, that’s how I always have to look at my work. It follows you into your life — how can I fix this? It’s not that you want to fix it to what it was; you want to make it better.” 

Kathy Cody, a Sturbridge native and resident of Wales who has a watercolor piece called “Wedding Wishes” in the show, can relate. She had always loved to draw, but that was “coupled with the frustration of trying to reproduce what I see exactly and not succeeding. Thanks to Zentangle, I have discovered the love of art for art’s sake,” she wrote in her artist’s statement. “I took my first Zentangle class in 2017 and never looked back.” 

Cody’s story is similar to many others, whether they come to Zentangle as artists already or are just starting their exploration.  

Deanna Nagle created a Zentangle pattern on an Oru Kayak. "If not for Zentangle, I may have lost my peace. ... This project has served as integral a part to my healing as the water itself," she wrote in her artist statement.

“People say they don’t think they’re artists, and then they create something beautiful,” Roberts said. “It opens up possibilities you didn’t think about. It’s not just about this little piece of paper, but that’s where it starts. Our favorite students are those that say they can’t do it.” 

This nonjudgmental practice, with its mix of structure but also freedom, provides an opportunity for instruction when starting with the art form, but then allows the artists to take it any direction they choose, Roberts said. And, Thomas added, “It brings you to that place that’s difficult to find sometimes — that contentment.” 

Lara Williams, who used to work at Alternatives Unlimited (a precursor to Open Sky), created several pieces for the exhibit, including "Zen Steppers," a pair of sneakers, and "Tangled Tiles," a bracelet using Domino pieces.

Finding that place of contentment was how the Zentangle method was born, back in 2003. Thomas, who for years had a highly successful calligraphy businesses and wholesale/retail stationary design and production company, was one day working on an illuminated manuscript, steadily and effortlessly working on drawing small patterns inside large letters. When Roberts interrupted her, they realized how meditative the art had become, and how the patterns inside the letter were simple to draw, unlike the actual letter forms. They wondered if they could translate that experience for other people who yearned to draw but who believed they weren’t artists.  

“We knew it was important. That’s what kept us going. We just looked forward; we never looked back,” Thomas said.  

The couple decided to rent a B&B for a few days in western Massachusetts, enthusiastically discussing their idea the entire drive and throughout their stay. They recorded their conversations in a blank book, and it was those notes that became the Zentangle method that they teach throughout the world, starting with the first public class they held in July 2004. It was on the last night of their B&B stay that they came up with the name Zentangle.  

Roberts — who has a background in printing and typesetting, flute design and manufacture, photography and high-tech industries and who also spent 17 years living as a monk — described it as a “perfect storm” of their talents. Thomas agreed, saying, “It had to be the two of us merging to create this. Neither one of us would’ve done it on our own.” 

Those who view the exhibit can try their own Zentangle design, as some have done already, using this framed board that is hanging on the wall. Zentangle co-founder Maria Thomas created the lettering and the board.

Still, they said, even though they knew this journey was an important one, they never imagined when they first began that Zentangle would be known throughout the world. They said they are grateful and humbled by the response the Zentangle community has created, and all the stories they have heard — and continue to hear — about how the art form has been such a positive aspect in people’s lives. Particularly these past two years, they said, so many have told them how Zentangle helped them through the loneliness and isolation of the pandemic.  

“It’s just been a crazy, wonderful, amazing journey,” Thomas said. “We’re so happy that we were chosen to do this.” 

“It’s inspired us,” Roberts said, “to keep going at this level of excitement.” 

The idea of gratitude is also a cornerstone of Zentangle and is part of the eight-step method. “The first step is gratitude, and the last step is gratitude. That’s a big part of it, even if it is just for the materials and the 15 minutes it took you to create something.” 

Lara Williams "Tangled Tree Magic," a mixed media diorama of a tree that was based on a book she loved reading, "The Night Circus."

But beyond that, gratitude for yourself and your own artwork is encouraged as well. “This is like a little toolkit you can use to reset your inner equilibrium or at least put down your worries for 10 or 15 minutes,” Roberts said. “It’s also a metaphor the larger canvas of life. Zentangle is an art form. Life is an art form. There can be beauty and artistry. … You healed yourself because of the beauty within you,” Roberts said.  

“We just gave you the tools,” Thomas added. 

“Beyond Zentangle” will be on display at the Spaulding R. Aldrich Heritage Gallery through Thursday, Sept. 1, when The Eagles Experience will play the last concert of the series. The exhibit is open on Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. during the concerts, or, to make an appointment during daytime hours, call (508) 234-6232 or email Dorcas.Carlson@openskycs.org. For more information about the exhibit, visit www.openskycs.org; for more information about Zentangle, see https://zentangle.com/ or https://www.youtube.com/user/zentangle

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