Sunday, December 16, 2012

Interview with Charlotte Davis

In 2011, fellow thankga painter Charlotte Davis was kind enough to conduct an interview with me over email. Here's a portion of it posted in online newsletter Gentle Voice. Click Here

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Endless Knot

Finished the first of the eight auspicious symbol project. I've been using Holbein acryla gouache which is halfway between the consistency of goauche and acrylic. It has a very flat appearance once done but you have to put on many coats of paint to achieve that effect which takes extra time. Another benefit is that the bottom layer doesn't pull up when you are dry-shading.

The main hindrance I found was that the paint doesn't flow as well from my sable brushes. I recently bought some cheaper acrylic brushes which seem to work wonders. I'm sure I'll figure out more tricks as I move on to the conch shell next.

The Endless Knot symbol itself was a bit confusing to figure out. Tsherin gave me some basic instruction on how to figure out the image I was working from. I managed to recreate it after three tries but I didn't have confidence in doing it successfully again next time. Luckily, I went to Andy Weber's workshop at Rainbow's End Farm earlier this month. He gave me a simple grid system to figure out it out. Now I have much more confidence and can create a sketch of one in about 10 minutes.

I'd love to experiment more with this symbol and materials. I'm pondering using copper leaf as an exercise.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Facebook "Thangka Artist Group" Introduction

Hello everybody,

I wanted to start a new introduction thread on this facebook group so we can have a better chance to get to know one another. [Note: if you are a thangka artist and would like to join this facebook group, please contact me]

I’ve felt for a while now that there is a wealth of thangka and dharma artists out there creating wonderful new pieces. However, it always seems that we are creating in insular groups without much awareness and connection to the teachers outside our own circles.

In the bay area, we have at least three great thangka masters, Ang Tsherin Sherpa, Dinesh Shrestha, and Jamyong Singye. I’m sure there are more that I’m not even aware of yet. Each of these artists works in a completely different style: Mendri, Newari, and Karma Ghadri. I’ve been so fortunate to see works from these masters as well as artists from afar through scholars and promoters of the art-form such as Siddhartha Shah.

About two years ago I started my thangka blog, to document my process. Through that I’ve met many thangka artists outside my circle who have become part of my art sangha. I’d love to see this develop more through this facebook group as well as our personal blogs and classes. We are part of a second generation of western thangka artists who will have much struggle ahead to preserve this tradition as well as keeping it as something useful for current Buddhist practitioners.

I’m not sure when I first encountered a thangka. I must have seen some reproduction from the first generation of western artists such as books by Andy Weber, Robert Beer, David Jackson, or maybe Romio Shreshta HUGE thangka book [I didn’t encounter Jack Niland’s more radical approach until much later] Maybe a combination of these influences and seeing a factory thangka at our dharma center start many of us on our path. This is also a common point where most of us get stuck. Finding an actual lineage holder in our immediate area is such a jewel. We are blessed in the bay area. Many of you had to travel across the world to Tsherin Art School in Kathmandu to find your teacher as did many of the first generation of western artists.

I first started reading about Buddhism during my college years in Michigan, not really knowing of any dharma centers to check out. The web was in its early days so it wasn’t quite as easy to google “Michigan Buddhist Centers” and stumble upon some center I never heard of. It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco in 1998, that I had easier access to the dharma. In 2000, I had two friends die within two months of each other, which sent a shock to my system. It gave me the courage to enter San Francisco Zen Center for the first time. Their setup is very welcoming to a newbie. I also wanted to find a Buddhist art practice to go along with my meditation. In my naivety, I thought a sand mandala instructor might be the easiest to find. I had no notion of initiations and such at that point.

In 2001, I stumbled upon a flyer for Ang Tsherin Sherpa’s art courses at Tsa Tsa Studio. Tsherin was also fairly new to America at that point and new to teaching westerners so it was a great learning process for all involved. We created very simple deities without much background or detail. Through that process my mind started opening to something new. A dharma was being transmitted through the brush. It was a form of meditation that I couldn’t really put into words but drew me in further. I was a zen practitioner so I didn’t have a much deeper understanding of the deities than what I read from Andy Weber’s books or what Tsherin would teach us but the process still held deep meaning for me.

Even after those early days, I still study next to a few who have maintained the practice throughout the years. It’s been wonderful to see how we have grown over the past ten years. Although my study with Tsherin has been off and on throughout this period for many reasons such as him being out of the country or me being too busy with work, I was always drawn back.

The last two years have had an increased focus for me. Many years ago Tsherin introduced me to his teacher Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Norbu through audio recordings. These past ten years I’ve wanted to get into my thangkas on a deeper level through vajrayana practice but just haven’t been able to find a bay area teacher that resonated with me. I was waiting for Khyentse Norbu to return to San Francisco for a teaching but then I discovered his newly forming 10 year modern “Dharma Gar” retreat. It was a little more than I wanted to get involved with to start out but it also seemed like quite an amazing opportunity as well. So I jumped in… And survived this first year and looking forward to my second...

The Dharma Gar daily two hour meditation commitment has given me a deeper connection to my painting and its challenged me greatly in many ways as well. My guru doesn’t want us to only image Indian style jewelry and forms of the east. So how do I translate that into my painting? Do I need to learn more skills as a sculptor to help see the deity in three dimensions like I imagine in my mind?

Those are the things I’ve begun to explore lately as well as new and older types of art materials. I’ve begun a series of the eight auspicious symbols but using Holbein acryla gouache as the medium. Tsherin has been using this paint for his contemporary pieces thus my interest. The paint is halfway between gouache and acrylic. The matte quality and permanence is amazing once it is down on canvas but I still have not achieved a natural flow between the brush, paint, and myself. I’ve begun to react against this new paint by wanting to explore traditional pigments. I’ve just received a glass muller, gum arabic, and a basic set of pigments to make my own paints. By exploring both the traditional and the modern I’m trying to find some form of balance.

Tsherin has given me a “10-year” assignment to go alongside my dharma gar practice which consists of individual paintings of figures from the Longchen Nyingthik lineage. I have no idea if this can even be completed in 10 years. It might turn out to be a lifelong project but I’m taking it one painting at a time.

Anyways,I look forward to getting to know all of you. Hoping you will also share your “achievements and failures” of trying to be a western thangka artist. I hope to study under different masters as time and money allows so I can get a feel how others approach dharma art. But in essence, I believe we need a community to help us to stay in line with our ultimate intentions of bringing dharma in the form of art to our generation. I look forward to getting to know you, debating with you, sharing techniques, and art material recommendations.

Friday, February 4, 2011

White Tara- Finished

I finished my painting of White Tara last month. It's been a long year working on this project for ACTA but it's given me a new level of self-discipline. I've begun to feel myself on the path of the masters. My eyes have changed drastically over the period of this time. I remember years ago looking at Pema Namdol Thaye's book with utter amazement, thinking i will never attain that level of mastery but I can see myself being able to reproduce that level of quality in the upcoming years. Now when I look at a master's artwork, I focus in on tiny details that i want to learn how to create rather than just the dazzle of the overall composition.

I've recently begun my next project which is doing the Longchen Nyingthik lineage tree, completing individual paintings for each figure within the tree. Giving them all a voice for the next generation who may not understand their buddhist ancestors. It's going to be a long and difficult process. Tsherin wanted it to go concurrently with my 10 year Dharma Gar retreat with Dzongsar Jamyang Kyentse Norbu. There will be much to learn and master over this period but it is a fascinating challenge.

I'll be starting out with Vajrasattva since I've been doing that practice for a few months now, sculpting Vajrasattva and consort Vajratopa in my mind's eye every day as i chant the 100-syllable mantra. This will be the first thangka I create in which I've had a deeper practice connection so I'm curious what kind of inner teachings will arise from the act of painting.

With my daily meditation practice commitment, my mind is no longer the same either. It's evolving somehow... The slowing down that comes with 2-3 hrs of practice a day has really helped my thangka practice, especially in those moments of feeling stuck. When I'm doing Vajrasattva practice for an hour long period, I can't just stop when my mind doesn't want to focus and move on to something else. I have to go through it and come out the other end somehow. The same with painting... It used to be easy to just stop and pick up the next day but I've been trying to have a daily 2 hr commitment to this practice as well. And with that i have to forge ahead even if it means making mistakes. When I manifest Vajrasattva in my mind, some days he is clear and vibrant while other days I can barely see the lotus he is sitting on. But it is a recreation, an image not of Vajrasattva but a roadmap to his aspects. I've begun thinking of the thangkas in the same way. Even though I want this individual painting to be beautiful and accurate, it is just one manifestation. To perfect that image, a thangka painter has to have the devotion to recreate the same deity over and over again throughout their lifetime. The White Tara I created back in 2001 is miles away from what I made this past year but there is still a quality of devotion there.

A thought arose the other day after meditating and starring at my completed White Tara, even if i master Tsherin's style of New Mendri/Mendri thangka painting, I will still not have mastered the art form. How does one create modern road maps to the divine? My teacher Dzongsar Kyentse reminds us that when looking at a thangka to not get caught up in the static, frozen quality of the pose but to realize that there is a fluidity we are not seeing. When manifesting Vajrasattva in one's mind we look at the deity from all angles, spin around from various viewpoints in one's head. You can't get that from a painting, maybe a sculpture of a deity is more closer but it is still not accurate because in the mind you are vibrating seed syllables within the deity who is effervescent like the reflection of the moon in water. How can one help practitioners see this? I'm not sure of the answer but i know i have a long road ahead.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Interview with Elaine Sweeney

Green Tara by Elaine Sweeney, Gouache, 2010

[Paul Ferguson] 
Do you remember when and where you first encountered a thangka painting? Looking back do you think it was a factory painting?

[Elaine Sweeney]
Yes, it was in San Francisco in the late '70s. My then-husband found out that an old schoolmate of his was living there and we went to visit her.

She was working on a thangka painting - her Tibetan Buddhist teacher was teaching her. She had the drawing transferred to canvas and was doing the dry-shading of the sky with this little little light blue strokes. I was utterly horrified.

I don't know what the subject was or who her teacher was, but it definitely was not a factory painting. 

[PF]:  What aspect initially attracted you?

[Elaine Sweeney]:
I think I became attracted to Tibetan Buddhist art in general because it was so *dense* in terms of what was going on and there was a
horror vacui that appealed to me. I saw a huge Yamatanka wooden statue in Richmond Virginia that mesmerized me - I couldn't forget it, and I resolved to get to Tibet sometime. Mostly from the impact of that sculpture. I think I was still appalled by the 'fussiness' of the painting styles then. 

But once I got to Nepal and Tibet in '97, I became much more interested in the painting and in Buddhism in general. There would be a huge temple with one 40-watt light bulb in there, and some butter lamps on the altar, and all these ... *things* ... going on, on every surface. I especially enjoyed the wall paintings peeking out of the gloom.

And I think the factory paintings influenced me too - there were streets of hole-in-the-wall shops with piles of every sort of thangka-like painting you could imagine. It gave me some idea of the possibilities out there. And the ubiquitousness of the sacred in Nepal. You'd bark your shins on cinder block altars people built in the middle of the sidewalk, stuff smoldering on top. Red pigment sprinkled on sleeping dogs.

[PF]: What made you decide to take a thangka painting class? How did you initially hear about it?

[Elaine Sweeney]:
I'm not sure how, but I heard about the Tsa Tsa Factory when Blase first started it, and I took a tsa tsa casting workshop from him. He talked - hesitantly - about how his teacher had given him this practice and what it was like. I was impressed with the discipline and the ritual.

At some point later I heard about thangka painting classes there from mailings but it was quite a while before I had any time to actually check it out. I have a MFA in painting and drawing so I thought working on thangkas won't be a huge learning curve. (HA HAHA AHAHAHAHAH HAHAAHHHA!)

I guess I did have an advantage in knowing how to handle a pencil, mix color and work with paint but I was really taken aback by how much I had to completely start over on the technique level.

By this time I had a Soto Zen practice, and I really craved having some disciplined practice with a visual art component. People have said to me, I can't believe you drive from the South Bay to SF/Oakland/Berkeley every week for a class but there just aren't that many opportunities to learn to draw the Buddha.

[PF]: How has this practice changed your relationship with the dharma? 

[Elaine Sweeney]:
I think I do much more visualizations than most Zen students, though they are not formal practices. Seeing thousand-arm Avalokitesvara in the plaster of the wall while sitting zazen, seeing the ancestors appear and bow in the dedication verses of the services. This is sporadic, not constant, but it's very vivid.

-I read a lot more from different lineages. Sometimes texts Tsherin suggests, sometimes other Tibetan texts, sometimes Pali Canon.

-I've developed a lot more patience and discipline around activity (art) rather than 'just sitting'.

[PF]:Have you encountered any difficulties doing a Vajrayana art form while being a Soto Zen  practitioner?

[Elaine Sweeney]:
The biggest difficulty for me is Tibetan deities that I don't have a Zen metaphor for. Compassion-based deities such as Chenrezig and Tara aren't hard for me to approach because Zen has such a strong Bodhisattva concept. The wrathful/tantric deities I have difficulty approaching. (This in spades in Dinesh's class, where you start with Ganesh...)
The next area is lack of interest/support from a Zen sangha. It's viewed as something interesting and maybe simpatico, like yoga, but it's not in the picture of Buddhist practice for Zen. There's just not a big focus on imagery and where it shows up, it's automagically appearing from Japan. This disinterest has lessened as I have shown people in the sangha completed and more complicated thangkas. And I have a personal worry that by bringing in other philosophies and practices that I may be diluting my Soto Zen practice, as there's only so much time and energy to go around.

 Like you mentioned, having an artistic background makes it seem easy to transition to thangka paintings with their grid systems. Some might think it would be easy to do the same deity over multiple times.  Could you tell me some of the differences you've experienced painting thangkas versus other art forms?

[Elaine Sweeney]: 
The biggest difference (and challenge) is that it's hard to think creatively when you get sucked so deeply into mastering technique. I try to counter this by working in a sketchbook (mostly in pencil) with ideas. But I still find I have hordes of concepts I never get to, because the time and focus to produce traditional thangkas is intense.

Another is that the length of time to complete a painting requires a quantum leap of care in handling it. This encourages mindfulness but it's also an anxiety, especially with the paint surface not being water-resistant.

Another is that it is easy to 'lose' much of a painting's qualities in presentation. Framing under glass, which is almost required because of the fragility of the surface, introduces an unwanted distance. Reproductions completely lose the level of goldwork and often much of the brush line quality. It's curious to have something so delicate and ephemeral in transmission.

Paint quality I struggled with for a long time, as I had mostly worked in oil previously. Luminosity and 'juiciness' with oil just does not occur with gouache. I have thought a lot about attempting an oil-based thangka but the time to execute and transliterate into the other media has not been there.

[PF]: We have many obstacles in the west to painting thangkas. Be it work, time, money, etc. What problems have you encountered with taking up this practice while living in the modern world?

[Elaine Sweeney]:
It's similar to my Zen practice in that it's out of step with cultural attitudes in the US - general casualness about Buddhist thought and imagery ... lack of respect ... disregard of the power. Buddhism has this 'hippy' aura, or it's muddied up with peace-and-love, Feng Shui and home decor. Sacred works and ceremonies are treated as entertainment or brushed with funky interpretations. There was a yab-yum thangka on craigslist earlier this month as a "perfect Valentine's Day gift." The further I go into thangka work, the more easily I feel taken aback by this stuff.

And I think the time factor is significant. It's almost impossible to sit down and spend 15 minutes with a painting or even a grid drawing - your hand isn't even awake by the end of that time. Once you get warmed up - maybe a half hour - it feels as if you need to spend an hour to get the benefit of the warm-up, or more. Just like sitting down to meditate just doesn't happen unless you have it "scheduled", day in and day out.

[PF]:Tsherin told me that his father studied with six different thangka artists that helped him to develop his style. You have studied with two teachers, Tsherin and Dinesh. Could you tell me if studying under a second teacher has changed how you approach thangka painting or given you any new insights?

[Elaine Sweeney]:
When Tsherin went back to Nepal and it became totally unclear when he would be able to return, I saw I was having problems staying motivated on my work without someone regularly looking over my shoulder. I happened to find out about Dinesh's classes and signed up.I think the most interesting thing has been having two very different perspectives on art and culture in the Himalayas. There were other differences in use of color, technique, iconography, but having that experience of the two different visions has made the most impact.

While our teacher, Tsherin, was away in Nepal trying to return to America both Tod and you continued to hold classes at Tsa Tsa Studio. Could you tell me a little bit about this experience and what you learned from it?
[Elaine Sweeney]: 
Tod was really the driver on the classes; initially he told me that the Tsa Tsa Studio had asked him to do a weekend workshop and I said I would be willing to help if he liked. I had the impression that the Tsa Tsa Studio could use the workshop fees, so he and I did a number of them over ~a year and a half or so.

First they were quite exhausting - people came into the classes at every level of ability and knowledge. The students were usually full of a wide range of questions and often they were quite nervous about drawing the Buddha. It was a handful to get them started with pencil and paper and a grid and keep them moving on the drawing. I had taught art before in graduate school as a TA but I did not have the same level of confidence in teaching thangka art. I think that was the biggest thing I remember, feeling my 'lack of competency' but trying to push through it. It was also a challenge in not having perceptions about what would happen; sometimes people had pre-registered, but more often they just came, or not.

You worked with whoever showed up, whenever they showed up. Sometimes they had preconceptions of what the class was about, and were taken aback at what was entailed - that the layout of the proportions was a significant part of the time.I developed a real appreciation for how skilled Tsherin had been as a teacher - how patient he was, how he knew how to 'move' students along with prompting and help without being untoward.

[PF]:  What other ways do you think our generation of thangka students can help continue to preserve this tradition?

[Elaine Sweeney]: 
Well this is really the $64 question, and I don't know that I have any good answer beyond the obvious - support the teachers that are out there, support fellow students, encourage the exposure of both traditional and contemporary Himalayan arts. 

I think there does need to be 'communities' that nuture this - maybe it is sanghas and maybe it is Tibetans and Nepalis, maybe it is artists and patrons. Once there is a nucleus of energy, I think creativity is going to go by leaps and bounds.

It would be great to get to the point where people feel it is important to have artwork in their Dharma Centers and personal shrines as a matter of course. I always love to see new work being dedicated - I think Berkeley Shambhala got a new painting not long ago and they had a nice flyer available on the work.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

New York Panel Interview

Tsherin will be having an interview October 7th at 6pm [New York Time]    The panel will be streaming live on the Trace Foundation website and probably archived afterward.

Trace Foundation Site