Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Six months have past since I mailed in my application. I had almost forgotten about the energy of last springtime when the garden was in bloom. The rains have arrived along with what is considered cold weather for us Bay Area folk. Along with that arrival, came our acceptance form. Tsherin received his paperwork a day ahead of mine so he rang me up to share the good news.

The idea of being accepted into the master/apprentice program took a few days to sink in. At first, I felt strange telling my friends and family since it seemed somehow like a dream. My friend Linda Jo said that I'm the first of her artist friends that has received anything like this "grant". Congratulations and much support came from all around. People were asking what I might need help with in the coming year.

The paperwork was pretty straight forward consisting mostly of release forms for use of our images and words. Tsherin had some extra tax paperwork since he will be in control of the funds.

 Sherwood Chen from ACTA made himself available to us at a place of our choosing to go over the program as well as our goals. We met up with him the following monday at World Grounds cafe for about ninety minutes. This "interview" formalized our goals while we had the opportunity to share more about the practice and history of thangka painting. Other than this initial meeting, we have more documentation at the halfway point as well as during our show/talk next December. Since Sherwood lives close by to us, he might stop by the studio earlier to see how we are doing. Overall, I feel very comfortable about the program once Sherwood shared some of the goals on their end which mainly consist of preserving California traditions and documenting the master/apprentice relationship. Their goal isn't so much on the end results but more about the journey.

Since the letter's arrival two weeks ago, it's begun to set in that I have been awarded a great opportunity to deepen my relationship with Tsherin as well as this sacred art form next year. One of my personal goals is to document my process every week within the blog to see what happens over the course of 2010. This writing will also help provide more documentation for the Alliance for California Traditional Art's archives.

I hope that this site acts as a beckon to other Thangka students so that we can begin a dialogue about the next generation of painters. I've found that many of us work in isolation without knowing about each other or sharing our common experiences. The available technology properly used can make us become more connected.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Master Apprentice Relationship

What does it mean to be an apprentice? I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Tsherin asked me to apply for the ACTA master/apprentice program with him for teaching traditional art forms. This is a serious proposal.

in the early 2000's, I started studying under Tsherin. I've gone through periods of becoming very serious of a student to being more lackadaisical about it. Mostly depending on the extra time I had free to devote when chasing money for work or with accessibility of Tsherin being in the country. the middle 2000's were a strange era with Tsherin not being able to renew his greencard because of stricter laws. A few of his students went to visit him during that time in Nepal. I couldn't afford to go. I always feel like the poor student. I can't afford commissioning him for paintings. With this bad economy, I've barely been able to afford classes even though I've had more free time again. Luckily Tsherin let me work something out until my finances became better.

So yes, I feel thrilled that he asked me to participate in this master/apprentice relationship with him. Now I'm trying to figure out how that will look. I'd love to have the opportunity to spend more time during the week to study under him When I'm practicing at home between class sessions I often feel like floundering around trying to find the right brushstroke. In class a few second's worth of instruction can solve an issue that I've been struggling with all week long.

My concerns aren't with a more intensive relationship. My concerns are with what the grant society wants. Both Tsherin and I want to preserve this traditional type of painting. One of Tsherin's teachers ,Kyentse norbu, even asked him to preserve a dying style of thangka painting.

The teachings that come from this core practice is helping both of us relate to who we are in our modern society. So a secondary type of relationship is coming about. Teaching how a Tibetan can become part of the west as well as how an American can be influenced by eastern thought.

That brings me to my second concern. Am I too "white" for the grant committee? I look at the pictures of the past grant award recipients and don't see people like me. Will my Polish/Scottish descent hinder me from being "traditional"? I think that is a question that will come up again and again throughout my contemporary art work about identity. what does it mean to be an american buddhist?

I recently saw one of Gyonkar Gyatso's series of identity photos were he is portraying himself as what he sees as various parts of himself. That reminded me of this older photo of Tsherin in more traditional Tibetan garb painting away looking "authentic". People see Tsherin as a high lama because of his cultural heritage. And although he is probably the most amazing artist/craftsman/teachers that I've ever encountered, he is not a lama. Westerns have a tendency to see all Tibetans as already enlightened. We hold onto that concept as if they are glass dolls that shouldn't be corrupted by our degenerate american culture. For example, one of Tsherin's first memories of being in america occured during a teaching in Marin county. During a lunch break, a woman became very angry because she saw Tsherin drinking a can of coca-cola. He has been in our country for only a short while yet we have already corrupted him. No thought that people outside of america could have "western" attributes. and that is ok...

Maybe what we should learn out of this strange behavior is to treat everyone like they are already enlightened. Not just the Tibetans. Wouldn't that be amazing.

Next tuesday is the grant informational meeting. will learn more then/

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Teaching of Tara's Eyes

The Current thangka I'm working on is of green tara. A few weeks ago I painted the base coat for her body wiping away all my original lines. A blank slate now. Tsherin has me practicing drawing the head. Getting the subtlety of the lines before i go back to the actual painting.

Yesterday, I had a teaching arise out of the drawing. I was focusing only on the eyes. A very challenging thing to get correct. I've been doubling + tripling the size of head to see the characteristics better. I've begun to feel a little more confident on my strokes, knowing the head placements without having to look back at the grid system so much. Next, I went back to the original smaller size. The area for an eye is about 1/4 inch by 1/2 inch. This seemed so confining at first. The curves for the eyelid have to arrive so quickly then vanish within this tiny space. I spent all of the two hours of class erasing and redrawing them. Finally near the end of the session, my eyes/mind began to slow down. The confined space seemed to almost expand and be infinite. The possibilities for drawing within were large. Only then did I start to get the curve of the eyes correct.

what a glorious teaching to arise.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Beginner's Mind and Fierce Claws

Tsherin asked me to assist him in a class he's teaching at the Asian Art museum that coincides with the Bhutanese Art Exhibit. The workshop is held on four saturdays. During the first two saturdays, Tsherin will teach the basics of the thangka grid system using Shakyamuni Buddha as an example. The final two saturdays a different teacher will be instructing on how to paint the background in a more asian brushwork style. Quite a large task to complete in only a few hours considering most thangka paintings takes hundreds of hours to complete.

Considering that my ongoing class consists of six students who generally work independently, a class of twenty-two students with various artistic and spiritual backgrounds was quite a challenge. Thus he called in my assistance for the second week.

I went into the class with only a vague idea of what I would be encountering. I figured it would be a good practice that would challenge my ability to be open to the moment. My first realization was that people's expectations varied widely. One person didn't want to have anything to do with the thangka grid system. She misread the catalog listing thinking that the course would be consisting only of asian brush painting. My first instinct was to calm her by trying to explain how this practice could influence how she picks up her brush in the coming weeks. Her mind however was not open to suggestion. Her voice was critical. She held expert mind of her needs and ability. Luckily, other students jumped in to help me out so I was able to move on to students who wanted my assistance. Somehow by the middle of the class I noticed her laughing about her anger. I wish i could have gotten a copy of her Buddha that she crudely drawn the week before. The hands had these fierce claws with long fingernails. A perfect manifestation of her mind state. I'm sure I'll will be thinking about her for years to come.

I enjoyed talking to many of the other students. Seeing the the uncertainty of their first pencil strokes. Seeing how their body language corresponded. I shared my experiences in working in this darkened state when everything is new. People felt like things needed to be perfect the first time around. I explained that only with time will their lines become more subtle and their eyes more discerning.

One of the things that comes up in a brief course is the the explanation of symbology within the buddhist framework. For myself, I've pieced together aspects through many hours of painting, reading, and meditation. Comparing them back and forth. Getting glimpses now and again. For somebody who is new to both the practice of art and buddhism, this is quite a challenge.

Thangkas are designed to help awaken the mind. That is why people are initially drawn to them. However, I've never seen a good book or heard a teaching that explains the gross aspects for a beginner audience. Robert Beer's encyclopedias are too dense. Most talks start getting into the subtle aspects of practice thus confusing people without a foundation. How do we find a way to introduce the groundwork without overwhelming them?

Overall, the experience has inspired me in ways I'll be exploring for years. On the ride from Oakland to San Francisco, I got some personal time to talk with Tsherin as peer to peer which we haven't done in awhile. We talked about how contemporary artwork influences us. About his teacher Dzongsar Jamyang Kyentse. About trying to find his identity as a Tibetan in America. I'm moving in the opposite direction. Being born into a consumer society, I'm trying to find my path into a more sustainable way.. I'm curious how our experiences will meet in the middle in the years ahead.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Early Deity Studies from 2000

Green Tara

White Tara




I started creating Tibetan Thangka Paintings about 9 yrs ago. I had been taking a bunch of art classes at San Francisco City College and a few at Academy of Art. I was learning new techniques and art history but something was missing from my early experiences with drawing. I began drawing as a way to ground myself when i felt the world was spinning out of control. These weren't technical masterpieces but more RAW visions of the state i was in at the time. I felt as if i was manifesting spirit onto paper. an exorcism. I hoped through studying art techniques i'd be able to capture this spirit in a more refined form. But that wasn't happening.

When first studying buddhism, I originally hoped to find a teacher who created Tibetan sand mandalas. I'd read how Native American sand paintings had influenced Jackson Pollock's work and opened up his mind to new ways of creation. Instead i discovered a flyer at SF Zen Center offering classes with a nepalese teacher.

My Thangka instructor Ang Tsherin taught us the basics of creating various deities such as Green and White Tara, Padmasambhava, and Medicine Buddha. We learned the essentials of the grid system which on initial view seems like it would be rigid towards creativity. However, it is just the opposite. It slows you down to see with precision every stroke, every curve. If one element is out of balance, the deity will not be harmonious. We learned to ink as we breathed. A meditative form showed itself through this work.

Just as I was beginning to get deeper into thangka painting, my teacher's visa ran out. The bush era was upon us so it took many years for him to get back into the united states. And when he finally did, I was busy with my new career in gardening. Luckily as the economy has slowed down, it has given me the chance to reconnect with my teacher and this art form.

This blog is to chronicle my journey into the realm of dharma art in america. Thangka painting will be my base for this study but i'll also be following how it influences my other art work as well as day to day life.