Quiet Devotion in the Woods
Artist Day Schildkret forages the woods for material to build MorningAltars, shares them by photos, and then returns later to reflect on the disturbed remains.
Day Schildkret often builds altars, on the average 3 feet by 3 feet, near the creek that runs under his house.
Photo by Ramona d'Viola
Day Schildkret stops to observe a cluster of flowering ivy and finds a bulbous mushroom with pink gills under its cap. There’s a velvety layer of grass in Wildcat Canyon, thanks to an unusually rainy fall.
He carries a basket as he walks near his home in the hills above Richmond, his miniature schnauzer, Rudy, nearby. He collects whatever catches his eye along the wooded paths: eucalyptus buttons, holly berries, pine cones, bay laurel nuts, clover, feathers, and decaying, half-eaten leaves. He points out the elderberries that he sometimes soaks in brandy to create a cold medicine. Then after and hour or two or three, he begins a painstaking process of carefully arranging the foraged items into a symmetrical, intricately designed mandala, which he calls a MorningAltar, and photographs it.
This practice has become a daily ritual for Schildkret, one undertaken after a quiet morning tea and mediation. The MorningAltars—works of art, really—have brought Schildkret a large following on Instagram and Facebook. He teaches workshops on foraging and altar-building and sees the practice as a form of meditation—one with the capacity to heal in a fractious, cluttered world.
“It’s an exercise of reawakening a skill we had as a kid,” Schildkret said. “A tangible practice on how to relate to uncertainty and mystery with a sense of curiosity.”
“This is devotional,” he said. “I would never have chosen this as an art career. It’s too bizarre, too risky, in today’s climate.”
Courtesy of Day Schildkret
Schildkret, 38, was reared in New York and moved to the Bay Area 10 years ago. He was executive director of a Jewish high school in Pleasanton for nine years and now makes his living conducting workshops, mentoring private clients, and selling prints and postcards of his MorningAltar designs.
“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” he said. “When I was 5, there would be a rainstorm, and I’d run out in the driveway and see all these little worms displaced. I would dig little holes into the ground, put the worms in, and then decorate the hole with twigs and leaves and flowers.”
Much later, Schildkret started building a mandala each year on his birthday and occasionally on friends’ birthdays. After a devastating breakup five years ago, he revisited the process as a way to “metabolize the grief,” he said.
“It was really life-saving. What had been a once-a-year thing became a daily thing and kind of an artistic renaissance for me. I would take an iPhone to document these little things I was doing. Now I’m booked on a northwestern winter tour, doing workshops on the importance of having a practice where you make beauty in dark times.”
There are seven steps, Schildkret said, in creating a MorningAltar: 1) foraging and wandering; 2) finding a spot to build, 3) clearing the spot; 4) building the altar; 5) blessing the spot; 6) walking away; and 7) sharing the altar through photographs.
Often he builds the altars, on the average 3 feet by 3 feet, near the creek that runs under his house. Creating can take four hours, and lately, with the diminishing light of autumn, he said “it’s kind of a race with the sun.” When he finishes, “I feel enlivened, like I did three yoga classes and drank 15 green smoothies.”
The next morning, Schildkret will return to photograph the remains of the mandala. “They usually don’t survive the night. They’re eaten, literally, by coyote and deer and squirrels. By the wind or the rain.” Accepting that, he said, is “an exercise in letting go, in allowing “unattachment, grace, and change everyday.”
To see more of Day Schildkret’s MorningAltar designs, go to MorningAltars.com/altars.
Published online on Feb. 1, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.