One hundred and fifty pandas lined the streets of Washington, D.C. this summer, making the nation’s capital a beary interesting place to visit. But unlike Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the pandas who arrived at the D.C. National Zoo from China over four years ago, these bears are sculptured creations, artfully decorated in various themes and colors. Sponsored by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the furry project kicked off the annual “PandaMania” event with hopes of inspiring the real-life duo to take their relationship to the next level and get the party started. Since Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived on loan for ten years for $1 million dollars per year, there have been no offspring.
After spending the summer all over city sidewalks, ninety full-size and miniature versions of the “PandaMania” sculptures were auctioned off to raise money for arts programs in the city. Among more than 1,200 artists who submitted their original designs from across the globe for consideration, Elizabeth Sworobuk’s “Pandala” design was one of the winning submissions and was recently auctioned off for $2,250. “I thought the design would be uplifting for people who passed the panda on the street. I was hoping it would instill a joyful calm,” said Sworobuk.
Sworobuk, a local artist in Washington, D.C., found out about the project just three days prior to the submission due date, from her friend and fellow artist, Michelle Banks. Banks encouraged Sworobuk to submit a design based on her mandala paintings, for which Sworobuk is known for in the art community. A yoga teacher for eight years—Sworobuk spent two months studying and meditating in India—her passion for yoga and art is expressed through the painting of mandalas. “Mandala is a Sanskrit word for circle. Mandalas are used in or as meditations. The design is done freehand and is meant to be symmetrical. As I do the designs, I find that I feel relaxed. I find them to be absorbing,” explained Sworobuk. Additionally, she uses mandalas as prayers. “As I make them, I sometimes focus on one issue for another person, for their health or a specific request,” she said. “Making the mandala sharpens my mind and opens my heart.”
With just three days before the deadline, the pregnant Sworobuk was housebound due to a snowstorm and used the opportunity to create an original sketch. Two weeks after the birth of her son, Jamie, she found out that she was awarded one of the 150 pandas. “I was shocked, excited and then worried about how I would paint and still be a good mother to my new baby. So, the next week we packed up the baby Bjorn and went to paint.”
Sworobuk found that taking care of her newborn son and completing the panda design was a hairy undertaking: “I would mix a color, get into a flow and then the baby would want to nurse. But, the other artists were so supportive and caring and loved the baby being around. I also was happy to share this experience with the baby.” Baby aside, there was also an artistic challenge. Sworobuk had not previously created a three-dimensional mandala work of art. “I had not really factored that into my original design and when I got the panda I thought, ‘Whoa, how am I going to pull this all together?’ ” But she did so exquisitely. It took one month to complete the 500-pound, 5 1/2 foot-tall bear. The “Pandala’s” official location was at the corner of D Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
“PandaMania” may not have inspired Mei Xiang and Tian Tian to start a romance—the pair was more preoccupied with eating bamboo—but the project was successful in raising money for arts programs and was an inspiration and delight for locals and tourists. Equally, despite the pandas not holding magic for one another—at least not yet—they do hold magic for the public and are viewed with great affection and appreciation. Sworobuk, who has visited Mei Xiang and Tian Tian at the zoo, said, “They seem to me to echo the mountain regions they are from. They are solid, timeless and beautiful.”
Elizabeth Sworobuk graduated from the School of Visual Arts in Hunter College in NYC and has been painting for 15 years. She received fellowships at the Vermont Studio Center, was an Artist in Residence at Omega Institute and has been featured in several group exhibits in Washington, D.C. and New York. She also teaches art to children at a D.C. public school in their aftercare program. To find out more about Elizabeth Sworobuk’s original and intricate mandala paintings, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.