Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Himalayan details

Ever since I walked across a prayer flag-covered suspension bridge in Bhutan (through Google StreetView of course) I’ve wanted to visit Tibet and Nepal. This region in the Himalayan mountains is famous for its richly detailed golden temples, prayer flags fluttering in the wind on a snow-covered mountain, massive Tibetan mastiffs, and yaks loaded with colorful blankets and supplies. One of the places in the Hudson Valley that pays homage to the region is Tsechen Kunchab Ling in Walden. When I found out the center was offering a two-day workshop on thangkas, called Himalayan-Tibetan Thangka Art with Sonam Rinzin, I knew I wouldn’t miss it.

A thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting that typically depicts deities, natural scenes, mandala patterns, or cultural tales. This free opportunity about the ancient art form was part of the center’s Tibetan/Himalayan Aspirational Arts Weekend. Saturday featured a lecture by teacher Sonam Rinzin with an overview of materials, techniques, iconography and narratives. The following day, the group offered a hands-on painting class. The event was presented by the Brooklyn-based Ethan Pettit Gallery where Sonam and his students study. Nepalese art has been a focus of the gallery since it opened two years ago.

Thangkas in various stages of completion and representing a range of subjects were on display throughout the weekend. One showed the life of a pond, another depicted a story of friendship. Many of the same elements appeared continuously: dieties, landscapes, nature, animals, clouds.

Students took turns explain their work’s story. Student Eva Schicker explained year one of the class is dedicated to drawing elements such as flowers and clouds, with a focus on blending and inking techniques. In her Two Goldfish in Lotus Pond she shows goldfish, lotus flowers, waves and clouds. She was inspired by lotus flowers in botanic gardens and spent 2-3 weeks sketching in the beginning. She explained the process of applying charcoal to the back of sketch, then drawing over it to leave an imprint on the canvas.

Student Mari Oshima was drawn to landscapes while creating Spring Island and later incorporated Buddhist iconography in her work. Susan Morningstar’s depiction in Four Harmonious Friends shows a bird, hare, monkey and elephant balancing one on top of the other. The image is drawn from a popular story, about friendship and cooperation, and revolves around a seed: the bird plants, the hare waters, the monkey fertilizes, and the elephant protects.

Seigan Glassing’s Stupa in the Clouds is a window into a pure land. Similar to how icons are depicted in detail in Russian and Christian icons, Seigan included a stupa in the sky to represent the Buddha mind. Student Audrey Mazur is a teacher at the Rubin museum in New York City. The museum focuses on Himalayan arts and she observed paintings there for inspiration to create Sublime Sky, Swirling Sea. She included a moon, waves and cliffs, as well as a stupa with proportions that are significant and can represent pilgrimage destinations.

Like other students, before starting his Shakyamuni Buddha student Sonam Lama practiced elements. He was the first in the class to depict Buddha image. Buddha sits calmly on a throne and before him on the ground are offerings including elephant tusks.

Sonam and his students answered questions from the audience about paint types and color sources. Pigments are drawn from environmental elements like shells, rocks, and plants. Their works were done on a muslin canvas stretched onto a frame. Dowels and string hold the piece tight like a drum. He explained the grids used to proportionally map out an image. On hand were the study books of students, filled with images with lines and numbers on the sides. A common element in thangkas is the presence of offerings like incense, fruit, candy, and candles, which usually appear at bottom of painting, just as in temples.

The images are meant to be transportable. Traditionally they are rolled up and brought to the next village for teachings. Stitch marks along the edge of thangkas indicate rolling and remounting. In Nepal, Sonam has no artists in his own family. Some of his family’s thangkas are over 400 years old and in the process of protecting the heirloom works, he began painting.

Tsechen Kunchab Ling:
Ethan Pettit Gallery:
Rubin Museum:


  1. Hi Lauren. Thank you so much for this wonderful article. I just read it again, and it is so nice to see the pictures and read your writing again.

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