By Alicia Doyle, VENTURA COUNTY STAR
Posted July 8, 2012 at 8:55 p.m.
PHOTO BY ROB VARELA, VENTURA COUNTY STAR
Ancient art revived
Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo was living in India, volunteering for the planning council of the Tibetan government in exile and studying Buddhism, when her life took an unexpected turn.
“I went on an economic development tour of some traditional arts workshops and found a group of Tibetans creating a colorful image out of silk at the Norbulingka Institute in Himachal Pradesh,” said Rinchen-Wongmo, 51, of Oxnard.
That was in 1992, when she was living in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives.
“I was completely entranced by the color and beauty,” she said. “I was also captivated by the integration of Buddhist teachings with such extraordinary handicraft. I immediately wanted to learn, having no idea my life would take a completely new trajectory from that point.”
The experience led her to complete a four-year apprenticeship with Tibetan appliqué masters in India. Now she is an artist and teacher of Buddhist textile art who exhibits her work at the Bell Arts Factory in Ventura.
She offers workshops in the craft, as well as an online virtual apprentice program at http://www.StitchingBuddhas.com that has attracted students from around the globe.
“I make sacred Buddhist images and portraits from pieces of silk stitched together by hand. People often call them tapestries because they are fabric wall hangings. But ‘tapestry’ is actually a technical term for a particular weaving technique. I do not weave.”
Her works, which follow a Tibetan tradition that dates to at least the 15th century, are like mosaics of silk, she said. One her favorite creations, titled “Chenrezig” — which means “Buddha of compassion” — took four months to complete.
Measuring 31 by 43 inches, the piece incorporates satin from India, pearls and threads wrapped in silk and gold. The cost: $21,000.
“I outline pieces of silk fabric with handmade silk-wrapped horsehair cords,” Rinchen-Wongmo said. “Then I assemble the pieces like a jigsaw puzzle into portraits and sacred images, all stitched together by hand.”
The technique is most often referred to as Tibetan appliqué, but unlike the appliqué most Americans are familiar with, there is no backing cloth to which pieces are applied.
“Instead, pieces are overlapped and interconnected, held together by the elaborate connections between them rather than built on a single base,” Rinchen-Wongmo said. “This strikes me as a beautiful metaphor for the Buddhist teaching of interdependence: Nothing is absolutely true or existent.”
These works are a form of thangka, a Tibetan word referring to sacred pictorial scrolls. The majority of thangkas are painted on canvas, then framed in brocade.
Tibetan Buddhist thangkas have been made by Buddhist artists for several centuries as tools for practice and worship, said Meher McArthur, of Los Angeles, a freelance Asian art historian who was curator of East Asian Art at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.
“Most people are familiar with painted thangkas, but a less well-known tradition of pieced silk thangkas has also existed for several hundred years,” said McArthur, author of “Reading Buddhist Art: A Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols.”
“The images have to be iconometrically perfect — correct positioning and proportions — or they will not have spiritual power, so it is very challenging for an artist,” McArthur said.
A typical monastery in Tibet would have had hundreds of painted thangkas but just one or two appliqué thangkas, Rinchen-Wongmo said. “For this reason, they are considered by Tibetans to be especially precious. Their display was often reserved for special festivals or initiations.”
With the occupation of Tibet by China in the 1950s, most appliqué workshops and tailors’ guilds were disrupted or disbanded.
“The tradition was kept alive by a few artists outside Tibet, where Tibetan refugees settled in India and Nepal,” Rinchen-Wongmo said. “When I first discovered this art form in 1992 and expressed a desire to learn it, few Tibetans in Dharamsala had even heard about it.”
Since then, those few workshops in India and Nepal have grown and been joined by others.
“His Holiness the Dalai Lama travels with three or four large appliqué thangkas when he delivers the Kalachakra empowerment and teachings in venues around the world,” Rinchen-Wongmo said. “I believe some workshops have been revived in Tibet itself as well. So I’m happy to see that this rare and precious tradition is not dying out.”
For more information, visit http://www.threadsofawakening.com