Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Interview with Tod Nielson

Back in February while Tsherin was away on retreat, I started some interviews with other fellow student thangka painters. I was stuck on my current thangka painting without Tsherin's assistance, so I figured I would work on the interview project for a bit. It was initially inspired by Buddhist Geeks announcement that they will be taking articles from their website from listeners. I thought it would be great to share some of the wonderful experiences of thangka students. Here is the first interview with student Tod Nielson. Tod was one of the first students to study under Tsherin when he arrived in California. Enjoy!

PF: Do you remember when and where you first encountered a thangka painting? looking back do you think it was a factory painting?

TN: Hmmm.. I think I first saw them in books, but the first time I saw them "in person" was at Tse Chen Ling when I started taking classes there. That was some time ago - I think the mid 1990s. I'm pretty sure they were high-quality thangkas.

PF: what aspects initially attracted you?

TN: The initial attraction was an artistic one - color, composition, details. But when I started learning which deities and events were being depicted, and why, they became all the more interesting. Actually, both my parents died in the winter of 96/97 (?), and I decided to commission a thangka of "The Buddha Descending from the Heaven of the 33 Gods" - because it deals with filial piety - in their honor. But I didn't know any thangka painters. That Christmas, Tse Chen Ling was having a "Winter Fair", and I met Tsherin at that time. He was helping a friend of his sell jewelry. I mentioned my wish, and he agreed to do the thangka for me! I really liked the final product! We had it "framed" in brocade.

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

TN: Tsherin and I became good friends, so when he started teaching classes, it was natural that I join in, even though the last time I took art was in High School, (a long time ago!). We (the other students and I) had a lot of fun, plus the painting itself teaches patience and concentration - not to mention the gaining of merit. Anyway, I was sad when I retired and moved, because there are no classes like that here in Lake Geneva, WI! But of course, I still see Tsherin occasionally when I go there or he comes here.

PF: You mentioned that the painting practice helped teach patience and concentration. How else has this practice changed your relationship with the dharma?

TN: Painting thangkas has helped me to appreciate the width and depth of the dharma. It's a different approach from the purely intellectual and/or experiential. It's visual - as in "visualization meditation." And of course, it's a perfect vehicle for expressing one's devotion.

PF: Like you were saying, we don't initially know all the iconography and specific aspects of a deity when we begin painting it. For me, I've now painted Green Tara three times. Two when I was just starting out around 2001 and one just recently. This time around, I felt more confident and had more knowledge thus a different energy became embodied in the painting. Could you tell me more about the experiences you've had as you get to know a specific deity?

TN: Hmm.. Well, discovering what all the accoutrements and settings of the Dieties represent does encourage one to do a bit of research! And being able to understand them, and explain them to fellow practitioners is gratifying. A good example is the (almost always) depicted "Offerings of the Five Senses." Who knew?

PF: We have many obstacles in the west to painting thangkas. Be it work, time, money, etc. Now you are half way across the united states. What problems did you encounter with taking up this practice in the modern world?

TN: There are not many problems, if one has a good teacher, and the support of fellow students. But the lack of them is certainly a detriment to continuing painting! If I have a question, I have to scour my old notes... not always helpful. But I've been branching out to non-religious art, too, so that's good.

PF: So, I guess my next questions are how things have changed since being away from Tsherin's instruction. For me, this past month has been a challenge with him gone on his vermont art retreat. When present, he can easily fix some aspect of the drawing that i've been struggling on in just a few seconds of demonstration. Have you tried a new thangka painting since moving away?

TN: I'm still working on the (simple) one I was when I moved! Also, I've done some grid/pencil line drawings - including an Amityus that I really like. Now that I'm in school full-time, [I'm getting a degree in Hotel/Hospitality Management], I haven't had a lot of time to paint lately.

PF: What other styles of painting [you mentioned non-religious] have you been working in? Have you found yourself using techniques from thangka painting when you are working outside the iconography?

TN: Right after I moved, I enrolled in a watercolor class here. That was a disaster, because watercolors are about as "opposite" from thangka painting as you can get. I kept feeling "sloppy" as I tried to paint landscapes, flowers, etc. in watercolors. I felt I should be paying attention to the details - which is virtually impossible in watercolors.

PF: Has any of your accumulated knowledge of thangka painting been passed on to your new sangha? When at buddhist centers, I always find myself explaining aspects of their thangkas while we are on break from dharma talk.

TN: Right now, I am affiliated with a Theravadan group, lead by Sri Lankan Monks and Nuns. But they (and the other practitioners) are very open to learning about all Buddhist art. Once a month, I bring a thangka or statues to the Meditation session, and explain the meaning of the deity, implements, and other aspects of the piece, and also the techniques used to paint or scupt the sacred object. Everyone is always very curious and impressed.

PF: Our teacher, Tsherin, was away for a few years in Nepal while trying to return to America. During that time both Elaine and you still continued to hold classes at Tsa Tsa Studio. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?

TN: The classes were held at the "Tsa Tsa Studio," which is affiliated with Tse Chen Ling. The building was really decrepit, and the owners were renovating the flat above us - VERY slowly. The place was infested with fleas, windows were broken, and the restroom was a disgrace. All in all, very interesting! Most of the time, it was just Elaine and me supporting each other in our endeavors, although some interesting people showed up occasionally. I can't speak for Elaine, but I really didn't feel qualified to "teach" anyone, be I could encourage them, and answer a few questions.

PF: What other ways do you think the new generation of thangka students can help preserve the tradition?

TN: One thing I noticed about the Dharma centers I've gone to is that "Buddhist Art" per se is not really discussed or taught. I think that if some well informed individuals were to take up that task, it would help - not just Tibetan art, but all Buddhist art.

PF: Any final thoughts you would like to add?

TN: No final thoughts - only that painting thangkas has been a joyous and gratifying experience for me. I'll attach some paintings I've done. (For some reason, my camera makes everything look rather garish)

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