Artist Interview: Scott O’Keefe on Mandalas, Joshua Tree and MRSA

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Scott O'Keefe's re-Creation mandala

Scott O’Keefe’s re-Creation mandala

We’ve entered a time when music, art, and spirituality have connected, or re-connected, outside of organized religions, which is profoundly evident here in Southern California where festivals such as Lighting in a Bottle draw thousands of people. While attending Lightning in Bottle 2012, CARTWHEEL founder Cindy Schwarzstein  checked out the festival’s Consciousness Temple. There she saw Scott’s O’Keefe’s mandala piece, and was blown away by the work which consisted of a trail of organic materials, assemblage, found objects, and deities. The mandala, which was changing and growing from day to day, caught Cindy’s eye, appealing to her on both aesthetic and spiritual levels. She became, in her words

super excited about it!

Cindy kept returning to see the how the piece was progressing. On the last day of the five-day festival she met assemblage artist and mandala contributor Robert Moondragon, fell in love with and purchased from him two of his pieces on the spot, which both now reside in the CARTWHEEL art collection. Moondragon then introduced her to Scott O’Keefe.

MoondragonpieceinCindys collection

Untitled Moondragon piece in the CARTWHEEL collection

Moondragon told me in email:

I met Scott about six years ago at The McDowell Mountain Music Festival outside Scottsdale AZ. and enjoyed watching his trust and grace, seeing the beauty in all that is. Scott lives a very bohemian / divine life style with great trust in higher powers, as I do.

Scott O'Keefe and friend

Scott O’Keefe and friend

Unfortunately, Scott recently contracted MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus-aureus) and now needs a very urgent hip replacement to keep him ambulatory, though he is keeping a positive attitude and continues to create mandalas at events such the upcoming Lightning in a Bottle 2013 and the Envision Festival 2013 in Costa Rica.  This past December, Scott’s friend Travis Puglisi coordinated a benefit help pay for his surgery. Held at Bobby Furst’s Joshua Tree art compound.  The event, titled re-Creation,  featured an art auction with pieces from Bret Philpot, Trine Bietz, and Brian Wilson, live performances and stacks of pizza donated by Pie 4 The People. The Evaro’s and Friends (a fabulous psychedelic reggae tinged jam band consisting of a local Joshua Tree brother and sister and their pals), Robbi Robb and 3rd Ear Experience, Colin Curtain aka Perplexes aka Unnatural Desire, and Nice Skies played through the night while members of FlowBox did a set of circus style entertainment. And all this was for a suggested donation of $10!


Benefit attendees at re-Creation

With the help of friends, and benefits such as re-Creation, Scott will hopefully soon get his surgery, though it’s the view of Scott and his friends that if much needed socialized medicine was the rule of the land here, the surgery that should have happened already, would have happened already.


The Evaros and Friends

Cindy, knowing of my personal love for Joshua Tree, asked if I’d be interested in attending the benefit and interviewing Scott for a CARTWHEEL article. I immediately agreed and decided to turn this assignment into a three-day trip to the desert with my girlfriend. On the morning of Saturday December 8, the day of Scott’s benefit, my girlfriend and I packed some clothing, our guitars, and her dog Cooper into her car and headed for Joshua Tree. For our first night there, we booked a room at the wonderful Mojave Sands desert resort, minutes from Bobby’s studio.



We arrived in Joshua Tree and ordered some delicious curry and rice from Sam’s Pizza and Indian Food, a favorite spot of both locals and visitors, conveniently located in the same strip mall as Sam’s Liquor and Sam’s Smoke Shop. Then we bundled against the cold desert night up before heading up the hill to Bobby’s studio.  We stayed for a few hours taking in the sights and sounds, and meeting people from the Joshua Tree creative community. The next day, we returned to Bobby’s place to meet up with Scott and take some daylight photos of the previous night’s mandala.

This interview with Scott was conducted via email, with questions based on our conversation with him the day after the event.

What were you doing before you started creating the mandalas, and what inspired you to create these sculptures? At what point did they become a focus in your life?

I was working for a screen print t shirt company called Cinder Block as a salesman, also making tie dye shirts for them. I was inspired by the Mother Nature. I would meditate in the Berkeley hills, it was my sacred place…the place where I found

beauty and connected with my soul. I first started doing mandalas in the Berkeley hills;  simple patterns made from eucalyptus acorns that grew into bigger patterns. I then started to dumpster flowers from local flower shops and bring them

to the UC Berkeley Campus where I got permission to do my flower mandala art, which started to become big 10 to 20 foot installations that would go on for days. I found tremendous joy in communicating with UC Berkeley students. I had a daily dialogue with them. The mandalas I created seemed to be a portal that allowed me to communicate sacredness. At the center of this communication was the Jungian idea of a collective consciousness. The mandala I found was a vehicle that unified us All.  Soon I found that I had to quit my job at Cinderblock to make more room for my art…the year was 2003.

Your pieces are ephemeral. However, the spiritual energy each piece creates has the potential to stay with the viewer for a lifetime – what is it that you would like people to take with them from the mandalas?

Yes, the mandala is an ephemeral art form. The origins go back to ancient Tibet. The Tibetans would create intricate multi colored sand mandalas that would go on for days, then they would sweep them away in flash of an instant. For me it is the idea of loving something…and letting it go, letting it die…the idea of unconditional Love…love beyond the pairs of opposites. The idea of death itself as Life…as crazy as that sounds…It is by consciously dying to our form that we learn the secrets of life. That life is energy, that constantly changes form. The more we let go the more we are renewed, much like flowers blooming from the death of a seed back into the light, where we are “One Love”

Mandala detail

Mandala detail

More mandala detail

More mandala detail

Did the mandala you created at Bobby’s contain more material items than most of your works? I noticed there were some loaned items incorporated into the piece – do you often have friends and others contribute things to the pieces?

One of the main ideas I try to convey is that of co-creation. I love to involve as many people as I can. I always ask people to bring artifacts to contribute to my piece. Many times I learn much about the creative process by seeing how someone connects to the mandala in their own way. The theme of the mandala at Bobby Furst`s place was a “Love Transmission”. At least seven different people contributed items to the piece. There was a satellite dish with a Goddess on the back. The main ideas being 1 — communicating divine Feminine consciousness, 2 –unifying Gaia with technology. There was also an underlying theme that runs through most of my installations, which is the unification of the sacred and the profane. We made shrines with such things as computer chips and Kwan Yin statues, mother boards and computer screens, phones and old rusted cans, keyboards connected to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and plastic medication bottles with flowers surrounding them all. Overall I thought it was a beautiful piece co-created with beautiful souls.

Mandala - daytime detail

Mandala – daytime detail

What roads lead you to your involvement with festivals? Any particular favorites or stories you wish to share about your festival experiences?

I found that the music festival platform was a way to reach people, a place where the boundaries of Art and human consciousness are being pushed and explored. I believe there is a sort of creative revolution happing in the festival scene, especially on the west coast. I believe artists are actually helping to raise human consciousness. That creativity is the new religion or better said spirituality. The more creative you are…the freer you become. I have had wonderful experiences and connected with many beautiful souls at festivals such as Lightening in a Bottle, Wanderlust Yoga Festival, and the Joshua Tree Music Festival, where I have found my spiritual family…a ring of souls who are helping to set each other free.

Scott constructs his mandala at re-Creation

Scott constructs his mandala at re-Creation

Your injury and subsequent infection leading to the deterioration of your hip bone seems to have not affected your spirit or your creative efforts – though it must be difficult – please tell us about how things have changed for you.

I have had my foundation shaken. The simplest things now can be quite challenging. The basic act of mobility can be challenging. I have had to rely on community for help…the experience had humbled me to my core. Not to mention i can no longer dance which is one of my favorite forms of creative expression, although i did hop around a bit one one leg at Bobby Furst’s, which was so fun, but hurt like hell the next morning.

When we spoke in person you told me about being removed from the hospital by the “bean counters” Please tell the readers about this experience.

They caught and treated my staph infection at the community hospital in Monterey.  I entered the Monterey community hospital by way of the emergency ward, where by law they had to admit me even though I had no medical insurance, it was there that they found I had contracted a staph infection which had eaten the cartilage of my hip completely away. The orthotic doctor had wanted to keep me in the hospital and perform hip replacement surgery, but the administrative branch of the hospital overruled him and forced me out of the hospital, because I was a financial liability. Essentially I wasn`t going to make them money… and that my hip condition was not life threatening, it’s considered “elective surgery”. I remember getting in a heated argument with them, stating that in any other industrialized nation I would have this hip replacement taken care of, and that to me heath care is a human right, not something to be exploited for profit. With that said I also realized that they saved my life and I thanked profusely. The doctors and nurses were exceptional in there care for me. It seems to me the problem lies in the system and the greed it fosters. HMOs, Big Pharma, insurance companies, and their lobbyists, are the main sources of evil that have infected the Hippocratic Oath…the sacred vow taken by all doctors to heal their patients.

Where are you are in the progress of the hip replacement – what needs to happen at this point to make the surgery a reality?

I am currently trying to raise funds to have surgery out of the country. India, Costa Rica, and Thailand are the leading candidates. I have raised about $5,700.00  thus far and will need approximately $15,000.00  to have the surgery and rehab.

How did you feel about the benefit at Bobby Furst’s studio? Joshua Tree is such a marvelous place.

It was a magical night…the kindness was overwhelming… the whole night was filled with amazing music and art… also Bobby Furst`s place is Magical… filled with soo much`s truly Amazing…it’s a sacred place of heArt..a place where the Joshua Tree community really comes together, and becomes One Love! Also i would like to thank Barnett English who runs the Joshua tree music festival and is at the heart of the creative community in Joshua Tree.

Bobby Furst (left) and event attendee

Bobby Furst (left) and event attendee

If you are interested in helping Scott via a donation, please go to and hit the “donate” link on the top of the page.


Scott and Travis





Moondragon at Lightning in a Bottle

Moondragon at Lightning in a Bottle

Moondragon art and LIB photos by Cindy Schwarzstein
All other photos by Lee Joseph

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