Grief, transformation focus of Saskatoon art exhibition featuring colourful mandalas

Feelings of grief typically accompany the most difficult times in a person's life, but a Saskatoon art therapist says there is healing to be gained from the emotions associated with loss.

Samantha Black has collaborated with other artists for the Ancestral Reflections exhibition

Samantha Black says she has always been drawn to mandalas and started making them to process the loss of her life partner, who died in a car accident. (Submitted by Samantha Black)

Feelings of grief typically accompany the most difficult times in a person's life, but a Saskatoon art therapist says there is healing to be gained from the emotions associated with loss.

"I feel that it's more of a transformative emotion that allows us to feel life more fully, and in that way it's like a healing emotion," Samantha Black said in an interview with CBC's Saskatchewan Weekend.

Black is the curator of an exhibit called Ancestral Reflections, currently on display at the Gordon Snelgrove Gallery in Saskatoon, which explores grief, loss and ancestry.

She said her goal is to present grief as something that is acceptable, approachable and healthy in a supportive atmosphere.

Black was also motivated to explore grief through art by the death of her life partner in a car accident about three years ago.

"In my processing of that experience I came to observe that there isn't a lot of room in our mainstream culture for people to process feelings of grief or loss in ways that are supported and healthy," said Black. 

"So it got me interested to observe our cultural attitudes."

Mandalas came naturally

Black said she started making mandalas on the floor as a way to process the more intense emotions she felt on the anniversary of her partner's death.

Black was familiar with mandalas because the art form is commonly used in art therapy.

Art therapist Samantha Black says she used food in her mandalas because she wanted to make an offering to her ancestors. (Samantha Black)

Their origins as a symbol in the Buddhist and Hindu beliefs are ancient but more recently, Black says, the word "mandala" has come to refer to any process art that's contained within a circle.

"The circle makes a container for the wholeness of the self," said Black.

"And then the imagery inside the circle arises from inside the person and it shows the artist's process in relationship to their self, to their wholeness."

Food as an offering

Black's mandalas, which are part of the exhibition, are made up of foods and living things, such as eggplants, pine cones and grains.

She said she sees the work as an offering to her ancestors.

"I feel that in general in our mainstream society we have a crisis of perception, which is not thinking about the world in the right ways, and that these patterns of thinking began long ago in ancestral relationships," said Black.

"So in this exhibit I'm trying to feel back into those relationships that made us who we are today and give those relationships some acknowledgement and some respectful attention, so that we can more consciously move forward."

Black said she worked with Indigenous elders to make sure her process was respectful to her partner's Lakota ancestors.

"The reason that I chose food to make these mandalas is that it makes me feel happy that my ancestors are being given something nourishing to eat," said Black.

"In terms of the symbols, those came out of my creative consciousness."

The Ancestral Reflections exhibition was curated by artist Samantha Black in collaboration with other artists. (Samantha Black)

Musician Marty Famine, video artist Carrie Gates, community life-cycle celebrant Karla Combres and artist Laura Hosaluk are among the other participants in the collaborative exhibition.

Although Black said some aspects of grief must be experienced in private, she feels talking more openly about death can help others who are going through those emotions.

"It's just a common human need to feel seen and understood and to feel reciprocal relationships to that," she said.

"And in sharing my grief I'm assisting someone else to process their own."

The Gordon Snelgrove Gallery is on campus at the University of Saskatchewan. It is open weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. CST.

A closing reception for Ancestral Reflections and grief ritual will take place Thursday, April 25, from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m.


  • A previous version of this story indicated the artist was concerned about her own Indigenous ancestors. It has been updated to clarify she was speaking about her partner's Indigenous heritage.
    Apr 21, 2019 9:43 AM CT

With files from CBC's Saskatchewan Weekend