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  • Writer's pictureKaren Seiger

Joe Mangrum: The Magic That Happens When The Market Is Not There + GIVEAWAY

Photo by Joe Mangrum

Ⓒ 1994-2014 Joe Mangrum

This story is a bit of a departure for me because it is about what happens in a space when a market is not there.

Meet Joe Mangrum. If you’ve been at Union Square on any given Tuesday, Thursday, or Sunday, you have probably seen his gorgeous sand paintings. And you have probably seen Joe himself, on all fours, masterfully painting with a fistful of sand. Joe Mangrum is what happens on the days when the Union Square Greenmarket is not open.

Joe offered to give away a box of 20 frameworthy postcards of his images of his own work. To win them, see details below.

Joe’s work is mesmerizing, and it is almost as fascinating to watch other people watching him work. We become art patrons for the moments we are engaging with Joe’s wild swirls of color. Heaven help the clueless person texting on a cellphone and coming perilously close to the art. You can feel the crowd growing protective and letting out a silent, or sometimes not so silent growl to warn that person that they are about to cause some damage to something very important. We’re all more forgiving of little kids who wander into Joe’s paintings, although their parents will catch a glare.

Joe’s presence in Union Square or Washington Square commands attention because of his bright colors and energetic designs. Everyone who walks by can’t help but wake up, smile, and stop to admire the thing that is coming to life there on the ground.

After watching Joe work for years, I had a few questions for him. And he kindly obliged.

Markets of New York: Are we allowed to talk with you while you work?

Joe Mangrum: Yes, it’s definitely okay to talk with me. Some people think they’ll interrupt me, but I take breaks. It’s also okay to talk with me when I’m working, but you’ll have to follow me around the circle.

Joe Mangrum Sand Painting (Photo by Joe Mangrum)

Joe Mangrum Sand Painting (Ⓒ 1994-2014 Joe Mangrum)

MoNY: Speaking of circles, how do yours end up so perfect?

JM: I’ve developed a good sense of space, which comes with lots of experience. At Union Square, the hexagonal pavers act as a guide for me too, which allows for a bit faster pace. Washington Square doesn’t have that grid. My work is actually larger at Washington Square. I’m not sure why that is.

Anyway, I’m not looking for mathematical precision. I’m looking more for organic symmetry. My work kind of floats, like a sea anemone or flowers opening. It’s not perfect, but there is a symmetry. One petal may open more than another…

MoNY: How do you not worry about people walking through your paintings?

JM: What I’ve found is that observers become sentinels. They feel protective of my work.

My aim is to bring awareness to the public. So when someone steps on my work, I’ve failed at first and yet succeeded at the same time because they become aware. It’s about the interconnectedness of the Universe. If you are a zombie on a cellphone, you are disconnected from the Universe.

Sand painting and photograph by Joe Mangrum

Sand painting and photograph by Joe Mangrum Ⓒ 1994-2014 Joe Mangrum

MoNY: Your work seems like performance art to me because it gets swept away at the end of the afternoon. Or it gets blown away in the wind. Why do you work so hard to create art that is only temporary?

JM: On a certain level, it’s just a pile of sand. Letting it go after a few hours or if somebody scuffs across it is a bigger metaphor for the existence of the piece itself.

At the same time, attached to each piece is a nice, permanent, high-resolution photograph.

I also do permanent pieces that are inspired by the temporary ones. I’ll cut the shape from wood, trace the image onto the wood and carve out the lines. Then I’ll pile sand on top of the wood to add dimension. One layer dries, and I add the next. So these pieces are carved in 3D, and they are more sculptural than surface carving, or bas relief.

MoNY: I have seen several other unusual projects you have done. Which ones come to mind first for you?

JM: I’ve done installations for Fashion Week, including a runway for a show by Jen Kao. Ann Koch designed the show. I spent several hours painting the runway, and the models walked through it.

I’ve had more than one person turn my art into tattoos (see below).

This year I did the Macy’s Spring Flower Show. I made a large sand painting of flowers on Broadway. The organizers found me working on Union Square and commissioned a sand painting for the event.

Joe Mangrum at the Macy's Spring Flower Show 2014 (Photo by Joe Mangrum)

Joe Mangrum at the Macy’s Spring Flower Show 2014 (Photo by Joe Mangrum)

MoNY: I didn’t realize you did realistic art and not only abstract. You did another realistic painting of some Muppets. How on earth did you end up on Sesame Street?

JM: The producers found me on Washington Square. We filmed for 8 hours, with me talking with the Muppets while I did the sand painting. They turned that footage into a 3 minute segment. I was actually on the show twice. The next season, I did a portrait of Murray.

MoNY: Did they write your Muppet rhyme for you?

JM: I made it up myself. “You take some sand in your hand and you put it on the ground. You make circles and shapes, and you spread them all around!” (Watch the video here.)

Joe Mangrum meets The Muppets!! Murray and Ovejita! (Photo from

Joe Mangrum meets The Muppets!! Murray and Ovejita! (Photo from

MoNY: On a different not, what do you do with the sand after you’ve finished each piece?

JM: I collect a sand sample of every single painting in a test tube as archival artifacts. I have samples from over 700 paintings.

I sweep up the rest and bring it to my studio. I have thousands of pounds of sand in a pile there. I am working on some ideas for what to do with it. I use it for casting and other types of work in terrazzo.

MoNY: You do other things besides sand painting, then?

JM:Yes. I have published photo books of my work, as well as original paintings, prints, photographs and even postcards (Like the ones we’re giving away).

I also do events and commissions, as well as exhibits. I had two projects in the Museum of Art and Design’s “Swept Away” Exhibit, one indoors and one outdoors. I called this exhibit “Asynchronous Syntropy,” the expansion of a biological entity and learning at a pace that is not synchronized on a clock, like the evolution of an organism.

I did a weekend event at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, where I made a large sand painting in the rotunda.

I’m working on several projects that transform my temporary sand designs into sculptural and architectural elements, creating castings and 3 dimensional works, using techniques to print on glass and making designs for floors walls, windows and skylights.

MoNY: That sounds brilliant! One last question. Why don’t you call your sand paintings Mandalas?

JM: “Mandala” is a Sanskrit word. My work is not only about Eastern philosophy. It incorporates elements of cultures from around the world. I use symbols, botanicals, Dr. Seuss, contemporary references, Celtic designs. The sand paintings connect people from around the world, rather than isolating them in the Eastern philosophy box.

MoNY: And there you have it. There can be inspiration and entertainment in spaces even when the markets are not there. Don’t be afraid to talk to him if you see him working. And try not to walk on his paintings inadvertently.

Giveaway: Joe is giving away a package of 20 his exclusive photo postcards of his sand paintings. Send them only to people you love, or frame and keep them all for yourself!

To Win:

  1. Leave a comment below. Let us know if you have ever seen Joe’s work in person — or on Sesame Street!

  2. Like Joe’s Facebook Page

For extra chances,

  1. Follow Joe Mangrum on Instagram

  2. Sign up for the Markets of New York City Weekend Market Picks!

Contest Extended! The winner will be picked randomly at midnight on Thursday, May 29, 2014, and I will post the name here and on the Markets of New York City social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)

~Karen Seiger, Markets of New York City

Joe Mangrum at work on a sand paining in Washington Square Park

Joe Mangrum at work on a sand paining in Washington Square Park

Sand Painting and Photo by Joe Mangrum

Sand Painting and Photo by Joe Mangrum. Can you spot the bags of sand in the corner? (Ⓒ 1994-2014 Joe Mangrum)

Possibly the first time I saw Joe Mangrum's work

Possibly the first time I saw Joe Mangrum’s work (Photo by Joe Mangrum)

Tattoo inspired by Joe Mangrum (photo by Joe Mangrum)

Tattoo inspired by Joe Mangrum (photo by Joe Mangrum)

Sand painting and photo by Joe Mangrum

Sand painting and photo by Joe Mangrum Ⓒ 1994-2014 Joe Mangrum

My tiny nieces loved seeing Joe Mangrum in Washington Square Park

My tiny nieces Maddie and Tessa loved seeing Joe Mangrum in Washington Square Park

Joe Mangrum working at night

Joe Mangrum working at night


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