Book Review: Nature Mandalas
— Cate Hibbitt
There is no doubt that Tim Phelps is a very talented natural science artist: a quick glance at his faculty web site at Johns Hopkins University reveals meticulously accurate illustrations of the dog musculoskeletal system, alternative routes for venous outflow from the human brain, techniques for carotid artery anastomosis, and others.
If simply viewing his work were not enough, his 30 years on the faculty of the Graduate Program of Art as Applied to Medicine as well as his numerous awards and publications are significantly convincing. However, a closer look also reveals an unusual and artistically adventurous side: hot rod flame painting (see Up in Flames: the Art of Flame Painting, by Tim Phelps, 2006)!
All of this contributes to Phelps’ thoughtful and imaginative approach to biological organisms and natural cycles in his Mandalas books, designed to be “a celebration of biodiversity”. Skillful, elegant drawings of organisms ranging from butterflies and frogs to octopods and eggs are presented in the mandalas. Often the animals are interspersed with important aspects of their natural history: four frogs eat from a ring of mosquitoes in their mandala, burrowing owls frown from their cactus homes, and ladybugs share their circle with delicious green aphids. Some of the mandalas are strictly symmetrical, others elegantly incorporate internal asymmetry to the overall design. While Phelps’ skill as an observer and illustrator is unquestionable, he seems to have had a great deal of fun with his designs as well. Some mandala creatures are quite realistic, others reflect his obvious pleasure in exploring colors and textures: fruit flies glimmer with hallucinogenic wings, plaid and tie-dyed butterflies make their appearance, hosta leaves look like elegant beading on a dress, and triggerfish sport flame-painted sides that would make any hot-rodder proud.
Accompanying each illustration is a thoughtful short essay about the animals and plants pictured. History, physiology, anatomy, and conservation are all considered. Tidbits of basic biology make for interesting reading, adding to the experience of viewing the mandalas with some background understanding. These texts are full of fascination: the dramatic reproduction of the cicada killer wasp, the research connections between information processing in owls and therapy for autism, invasion of the lionfish, the connection between zebra swallowtail butterflies and cancer treatment, and much more. The unfortunate reoccurrence of habitat loss and human interference is obvious in the natural history of many of the organisms presented.
Phelp’s mandalas are truly pleasurable, and will keep viewers returning to their pages for the joy they present in both natural and artistic connections. In these days of STEAM (“Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics”) initiatives, they would make valuable additions to school and science libraries, as well as fine additions to the collections of any lover of nature and illustration. These lovely volumes are to be savored by anyone who enjoys the interconnection between science and art – with a little fun in between.
Nature Mandalas: Wonders of the Garden; Life circles of biodiversity and conservancy. By Tim Phelps. 2016. Schiffer Publishing. (ISBN 978-0-7643-5044-3). 160 pp. Hardcover. $34.99.
Nature Mandalas: Wonders of the Earth, Wind, and Sea; Life circles of biodiversity and conservancy. By Tim Phelps. 2016. Schiffer Publishing. (ISBN 978-0-7643-5064-1). 144 pp. Hardcover. $34.99.
Images: Leopard Frog Leaping, Lady Bugs and Aphids; © Timothy Phelp
Newer artwork can be seen at this updated department website if any other images are of interest to you: