Sunday, June 6, 2010

Thangka Student Interview: Reed Malcolm

Above is Chenrezig Mandala [Gouache on canvas 20" x 20"] completed by Reed in 2009.

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

RM: I'll never forget the first time I saw a thangka. I was in Kerala, South India. It was a wheel of life painting, and most certainly a cheap factory painting. I think I saw it in the window of tourist shop. It made a huge impact on me (although I didn't buy it). I spent a month or so traveling north through India, thinking about that painting, and eventually wound up in Kathmandu -- the hub of cheap factory thangkas. Of course, like any novice, I had no idea about the difference in quality -- tourism thangka vs. proper thangka. To me they were all amazing, and all beautiful. I often wish I still had that same openess and indifference to quality, and hadn't become such a thangka snob.

PF: what aspects initially attracted you?

RM: What I loved about thangkas are their complexity, symmetry, and colors. For me, they are art of a spiritual nature, and leave a deep impact. The same way music, or literature, might for other people? Interestingly, I think one thing that attracted me in the beginning was also the brocaded frames found on most thangkas! I had never seen anything like this, and looking back I think they added to the regalnes, and other-worldliness of thangka painting.

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

RM: I had been self-taught for a while, and not very good, but really enjoying the process of copying other thangkas. I later got involved studying with a Tibetan teacher in SF, who subsequently moved back to Nepal. So I signed up for a Newari painting class with an incredible teacher and painter in Berkeley, Dinesh Shrestra. Although I found this class quite useful, it was not exactly the Tibetan/thangka style I was after. A fellow student told me about Tsering Sherpa's class, and the rest is history. I've since benefited greatly from the instruction and inspiration received from Tsering. He's a fantastic teacher, apart from being a superb painter in his own right.

PF: I'm curious what methods you used while you were in the initial phase of teaching yourself. Did you use any books such as Robert Beer's "Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs" or David Jackson's "Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Materials"?

RM: I started with David Jackson's book, which is really the only one readily available in terms of supplying thangka grids. Beyond that, when I started out I was mainly just copy other thangkas. My work was never very good, nor the details ever "right" from a technical perspective. But I wallowed blissfully in my ignorance for years, and had a real "beginner's mind" approach to the painting process. Now I know too much, which means I can't look back at that older work now without cringing at my mistakes.

PF: How has this practice changed your relationship with the dharma? Have you encountered any difficulties doing a vajrayana art form while being a Soto Zen practitioner?

RM: I can't say for sure. Some people -- like my mother -- often ask me if I recite mantras while I paint? Some ask me if it's my form of meditation? And while it could be a form of meditation, and while I probably should recite mantras, the truth is I mainly listen to the radio! I will say however that since thangka painting is so painstakingly detailed, often requiring months if not years to complete a single work, one does acquire a strong sense of patience, and the benefit of learning to be present while only focusing on the small details right in front of you, not worried about finishing the entire painting. I'm convinced now that anyone who calls themself a thangka painter must be clinically crazy......Who in their right mind who embark on a work that can take months or even years to finish?! My (Zen) teacher supports the practice, and even used to paint thangkas himself.

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?

RM: Lack of time is the biggest problem, especially for us householders with families and full-time jobs. The other obstacle I would say is that there is neither a strong commercial nor any monastic demand for thangkas in the west. Most people don't understand them or their purpose. Tell someone at a cocktail party that you paint 'thangkas,' they'll think your refering to toy trucks.

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