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.

1 comment:

  1. Elaine, you always make me laugh - "..learning curve.. - HAHA HAHA!" I realize now how much I miss those classes we took together - not to mention the classes we (sort of) taught. I haven't thought about that (let's be honest) ratty old Tsa Tsa Studio building in ages. Just the thought makes me laugh. Anyway, keep up the good work. And thanks, Paul, for doing these interviews. - Tod