Cardiff artist finds connection, healing in sand mandala beach drawings

Sharon Belknap and Heather Nelson dance in their sand mandala at Cardiff State Beach on Wednesday.
Sharon Belknap, left, and her friend since college, Heather Nelson, dance in the mandala they just carved into the sand at Cardiff State Beach on Wednesday, Nov. 25. The mandala asks the viewer “Grateful for… ____”
(Bill Wechter )

Sharon Belknap and friends usually draw a crowd while making sand art at Cardiff State Beach

On Wednesday morning, Nov. 25, dozens of surfers, dog-walkers, cyclists and beach-goers stopped on the bridge by Cardiff State Beach to give thanks. They gathered to watch a live art “happening,” as a huge Thanksgiving-themed sand mandala was carved on the beach below with garden rakes and decorated with flowers and leaves.

Amid the swirling mix of designs was a heart-filled sunburst with twisting sunbeams, encircled stars and the words “Grateful for ... ____. " The phrase was dreamed up in the moment by Cardiff artist Sharon Belknap, who enjoys engaging the public in the sand drawings that she periodically creates near the inlet for the San Elijo Lagoon along South Coast Highway 101. In this case, she was calling out to passers-by, asking them to fill out the rest of the sentence themselves.

“I’m grateful for you!” Carlsbad resident Suzi Munnelly shouted down to Belknap, while taking some pictures with her phone. “I love people who love people.”

Artist Sharon Belknap carves a mandala into the sand at Cardiff State Beach Wednesday.
Cardiff artist Sharon Belknap carves a mandala into the sand at Cardiff State Beach Wednesday, Nov. 25.
(Bill Wechter / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Over about 40 minutes, Belknap free-hand created the large, snaking design. Two friends she calls her “soothe-sand artists,” Nadia Quiros and Heather Nelson, followed behind her, shading in portions of the drawing with rakes and planting leaves and fresh flowers in fall harvest colors here and there. As they worked, ‘70s and ‘80s soft rock, pop and disco music played. Afterward, the trio gathered at the center of the design and danced to their “theme song,” Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” while the crowd watching from above applauded.

Belknap said she creates the mandalas whenever the tide is low and the inspiration strikes. Usually she comes up with the theme as she’s walking to the beach. Sometimes she takes suggestions from people who are watching her work. On her 61st birthday Nov. 1, she was two letters into writing “Within Love” in the sand mandala when an observer shouted out his own guess: “Wish!” So she went with that instead. Other times, she’ll hand her rake over to someone watching on the beach for a spontaneous collaboration.

“I will drop everything for synergy,” she said. “For me it’s about creating the warmth within and being grateful for all the moments of love shared. It’s fun and it’s live and the beauty is the impermanence of knowing the tide is going to come in soon and wash it all away.”

Sharon Belknap, Nadia Quiros Horvath and Heather Nelson dancing while carving a sand mandala at Cardiff State Beach.
In a sudden burst of energy, from left, Sharon Belknap, Nadia Quiros and Heather Nelson break into a short burst of dancing as they work together on carving a mandala into the sand at Cardiff State Beach Wednesday, Nov. 25.

Belknap is a professional graphic designer and illustrator, who said she rediscovered her childhood love for sketching about six years ago. For a Facebook challenge she created a series of small playful sketches like a ladybug, sunshine and a wave. Public response to the postage stamp-size sketches was so positive, she printed them on cardstock and now sells them in tiny boxes in local gift shops under the name Tidbits of Love. For five years she has been sprinkling Tidbits cards around the community, including on a wood fence near Swami’s Beach. It makes her happy to know that the Tidbits supply needs to be continually replenished because people take them home.

Artist Sharon Belknap's Tidbits of Love art cards.
(Courtesy photo)

It was through Tidbits of Love that Belknap met Quiros and started making sand mandalas. Quiros was admiring the Tidbits of Love boxes in the gift shop at the San Diego Botanic Garden when a volunteer there suggested she meet Belknap because they had similar interests. Over coffee, Quiros explained how she created sand mandalas at the beach with clients she counsels with addiction recovery and anxiety issues, but she’d never created one with an artist. Belknap said once she and Quiros did their first mandala together, she was hooked.

“I love hand lettering, I love nature and I love large scale, it was the perfect trifecta for me,” Belknap said.

The Wednesday, Nov. 25, sand mandala included three large eyes, which Belknap said represent how her son, Christopher Thompson, is keeping a watchful eye on her from above. On July 4, the 28-year-old firefighter was killed in a traffic accident on Interstate 5. The morning after he died, Belknap said she woke up feeling compelled to make a sand mandala in her son’s memory.

The drawing she created alone that day featured the words “Only Love.” A woman named Sandy Wells shouted out her delight from the bridge and took a picture of Belknap that she texted to her later. In the photo, the mandala is in shadow but Belknap stands arms raised overhead in celebration in a patch of sunlight. She believes that was her son’s presence, telling her to carry on and keep spreading sunshine in the world.

Sharon Belknap with her "Only Love" sand mandala on July 5.
Sharon Belknap, top center, stands with her “Only Love” sand mandala that she created in memory of her son, Christopher Thompson, on July 5 near Cardiff State Beach.
(Courtesy of Sandy Wells)

“In the past I would’ve leaned back and felt self-conscious. But because of his now omnipresent, unconditional love within me and his firm guidance saying ‘Mom, you be you,’ I’m finally leaning forward into my soulful intuition,” Belknap said.

On Thanksgiving Day, Belknap said she plans to visit her parents in Carlsbad, FaceTime with her daughter, Andie Thompson, and reach out to a few other family members in the area. But there’s one other thing she might do, if the inspiration strikes.

“You know there’s another low tide on Thursday,” she said, with a smile.

Sand mandala artist Sharon Belknap, right, asks a spectator "What are you grateful for?"
Artist Sharon Belknap, right, calls up the question to a spectator on the bridge, “What are you grateful for?” as she and two friends carve a mandala into the sand at Cardiff State Beach Wednesday.
(Bill Wechter/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

—Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune