“My love of art was immense!”
I first met thangka painting in New York City while sitting in the Oriental antique store of a meditation teacher named Rudi. While I was drawing his portrait he was talking about the beauty of Tibetan scroll paintings, thangkas. He spoke with sadness about the destruction of Tibet by the Chinese Communists. This was back in the 70’s. As he spoke I felt a stirring, an awakening in my consciousness. I knew that somehow thangkas were very important to me, and I felt a responsibility for helping to save this art form. I also felt a deep ache in my heart at the potential loss of this amazing culture and people that are reflected in their arts.
At the time I was a young art student. My love of art was immense, but I often struggled with what subject to paint. It was years later in Boulder, Colorado that I saw an offering for a class in thangka painting at Naropa University. I knew that I had found my art. I felt that I was born to paint Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. It was a profound understanding.
I have a traditional art background and also have specialized in thangka painting. I majored in painting at Montserrat College of Art in Massachusetts. I’ve also studied figure painting with renowned figure painter, Irene McCray, at Rocky Mountain College of Art, in Denver, as well as Printmaking with master artist and printmaker, Hiroke Morinoue, in Hawaii. However, my primary focus has been thangka painting. I began my studies in 1987 with 3 years under Sanje Elliot at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and took classes with Cynthia Moku as well. Since then, I have been under the guidance of HH Drikung Kagyu Chetsang Rinpoche and have also painted for and received guidance from Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal and his late brother, Khen Rinpoche. I have been painting thangkas and drawing Buddhas for over 25 years.
For the past 5 years, I have been researching and carving Buddha woodblocks.
This is now my primary discipline. It seems Buddha woodblocks and thangkas are a dying art. My dream is to preserve and revitalize Buddha woodblocks.
“Based on technique and material, tangkas can be grouped by types. Generally, they are divided into two broad categories: those that are painted (Tib.) bris-tan—and those made of silk, either by appliqué or embroidery.
Thangkas are further divided into these more specific categories:
- Painted in colours (Tib.) tson-tang—the most common type
- Appliqué (Tib.) go-tang
- Black Background—meaning gold line on a black background (Tib.) nagtang
- Blockprints—paper or cloth outlined renderings, by woodcut/woodblock printing
- Embroidery (Tib.) tsem-thang
- Gold Background—an auspicious treatment, used judiciously for peaceful, long-life deities and fully enlightened buddhas
- Red Background—literally gold line, but referring to gold line on a vermillion (Tib.) mar-tang
The road has been challenging. I’m a thangka painter but Western galleries have not been interested in women who paint thangkas or for that matter Buddhist art. Countless times I’ve walked into a gallery and as soon as the owners saw a Buddha or Tara they would say – too religious, not interested. It took tremendous tenacity and deep personal commitment to hold true to my path with very little support from Western culture. I have enjoyed much more acceptance with my Tibetan teachers and have painted personal thangkas for them as well as doing illustrations for a number of books.
One of the highlights of my thangka painting experience was painting a 2-armed VajraKilaya for Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal and his brother Khen Rinpoche. This is a rare form of VajraKilaya from a hidden text that their father had discovered. They guided me with every step of the painting and iconography. The Khenpos’ students then took photographs of my painting to Nepal and had Nepalese thankga painters reproduce it as is customary with the tradition – we all share drawings. I was happy that my drawing and painting was returning to the source from where it came.
I am extremely excited about Dakini As Art.
Dakini As Art recognizes the profound impact Tibetan art and culture have had on the West and in particular on women painters. As I read about the mission, I found one passage that spoke deeply to me. It raised questions about what might happen if you were a thangka painter in a previous life, now born into a culture that has no understanding or support structure for thangka painting. Somehow, you manage to find the art form again and begin practicing, but you are a woman, and not Tibetan, so many obstacles. I cried as I read this. I felt that it described my life and art perfectly. I felt as though I had found my dharma sisters in art. Up until now I have enjoyed much more acceptance from my Tibetan teachers and have painted thangkas for them, as well as doing illustrations for a number of books.
In 2006, I saw an exhibit at the University of Colorado Museum of Art in Boulder, “Waves on the Turquoise Lake: Contemporary Tibetan Art.” I was profoundly struck by the work of Karma Phuntsok. He uses traditional thigse proportions and figures but set in backgrounds of vivid swirling colors and dots, flowers and abstractions. It changed my life. Up to that point I only followed the traditional method for painting thangkas. However, with the birth of my daughter, I was finding it increasingly difficult to devote the countless hours required for pointillism and dots for shading the sky and other elements of the painting. When I saw that Tibetan painters were making the art form in a more contemporary manner, I realized this could work for me. It set me free. I chose to keep the Bodhisattva completely traditional in terms of the thigse but put the deity in modern settings and shifted to using more modern methods of painting including acrylics, spray paint and paint pens and now woodblocks. I have also become friends with Karma Phuntsok, and we regularly exchange photos of what we are working on. He continues to inspire me.
I have had a varied and interesting life this time around. I was born the second child of nine, all of us about one year apart, Irish Catholic. My father was the director of two zoos in the Boston area and my family lived on the grounds of the smaller, Stoneham zoo, now named after my Father – the Stone Zoo. In many ways growing up with the animals made for an enchanted childhood. All of us were particularly fond of the Indian elephant called Babe, and she seemed to love us too. However, my father died in a car accident when the oldest child was 14 and youngest was 5, leaving my mother with 9 kids to raise on her own. I became an immediate second parent at 13.
My father’s death left me heart broken, confused and questioning my religious upbringing. I started looking for the deeper meaning of life and met my first teacher, Swami Rudrananda, often called Rudi, at age 16. I moved into his ashram in Boston when I graduated from high school and have been living in an ashram ever since.
My dharma practice is rooted in Kashmir Shaivism, which incorporates both Buddhism and Hinduism. There are a number of crossover regions in the world where this happens: Nepal, Kashmir, Bali and Thailand to name some. I have had the great good fortune to meet and receive teachings from many highly evolved Yogis, Yoginis, Siddhas, and Buddhist Lamas. I have taken empowerments and received teachings from Kalu Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the Drikung Kagyu Chetsang Rinpoche, the Khenpo brothers Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal and Khen Rinpoche, as well as Baba Muktananda, Sri Ma, Her Holiness the Mahamandaleshwar SriMataji and others. I have the utmost respect and reverence for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I am most grateful for the many teachers who have been so kind to me. Lastly I am so fortunate to be married to a wonderful yogi husband Baba Shambhavananda who is my teacher, best friend and has always been my biggest supporter.
Along the way I have painted Buddhas and Dakinis while working as a chef (edible art) and starting a natural foods restaurant. I’ve been a kindergarten through high school art teacher, yoga camp director, cookbook author, short novel author, author of “Drawing Buddhas and Bodhisattvas”, musician and song writer in a kirtan band (I play ukulele), mom (best job in the world), bookkeeper and fine art printmaker. I love all things creative but I love painting Buddhas and Dakinis the most.
I now spend most of my time carving Thangka woodblocks of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. I believe the real joy of carving and painting Buddhas and Dakinis is creating the space and environment for the deity to reside. The idea is that once the painting is completed, the deity moves in. The painting no longer belongs to the artist. It is the home of a Buddha. What an incredible and wonderful thing to do – help manifest Buddhas and Dakinis.
That’s also why I wrote the “how to” book, Drawing Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, I want everyone to carve and paint Buddhas, it’s the best!