An Interview with Tara Di
By Kelly Roberts
When I was asked if I would interview Tara for the Art Issue of the Gentle Voice, I have to admit, I was deeply excited and happy. It was about time that people heard what she had to say about her art and the topic of Thangka painting. I have had the great fortune to know Tara for many years. I have watched her closely ~ developing into the absolutely stunning Thangka painter that she is today. I remember when she showed me one of her first paintings it vibrated with so much magic, presence and movement. I was so moved, speechless, tears fell. Amazing. It truly felt as if she had brought the deity to life right before my very eyes. This particular deity continued to haunt me for days and now still does years later ~ bringing so much presence into my practice. Over the years she has developed this skill to a place where even a non-dharmic person is incredibly touched by her paintings. Of course anyone who knows Tara will not be surprised to hear that she adamantly refuses to take a compliment.
When I told her that the Gentle Voice had asked if I would interview her, her immediate reaction was an adamant “NO – I am not a traditional Thangka painter. There are many others who are much better than me that they could interview.” I wasn’t going to give up. I had to assure Tara that Gentle Voice had Rinpoche’s support to do the interview and only then did she consent. Rinpoche has mentioned many times over the years how he feels she is amongst the most accomplished painters he knows.
It’s actually an amazing accomplishment to get her to speak so openly and profoundly about her art. It is a true gift to all of us. I am so happy to be able to share her in this way. We met for a “cappuccino and chocolate”, at the local “Bliss Cafe” in downtown Crestone, Colorado where we both live. It was a lively and laughing conversation most of which I have included here:
Kelly: So tell me how you first became inspired to become a Thangka painter?
Tara: When I was about 16, I decided to go on an adventure for the summer to Nepal , not yet as a Buddhist but more to have an adventure. The day I arrived was the day I found out Trungpa Rinpoche had only months to live. So – suddenly the journey switched for me. I realised I had a connection to Buddhism, and the various adolescent activities I had hoped to pursue as an unsupervised teenager in a foreign country no longer held much allure.
Shortly after I arrived, someone said, “Oh you draw ! There is this Thangka painter – you should meet him.” It wasn’t something that I had even thought of. Soon after that I was introduced to this painter who lived with Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. His name was Jamyang Gyatso – he was such an incredible person and Thangka painter. He lived in this tiny little shack in front of Rinpoche’s house with his mom, and sometimes his sister and brother. The second I met him and saw one of his Thangkas I knew that this was where I wanted to be. It just made me incredibly happy to sit there in this small room with him and paint. I loved being in Rinpoche’s space as well, and although I didn’t get to see him often, I was quite awestruck and enamoured. I ended up staying in Nepal for a few years.
My painting teacher’s demeanour was so much different than anything I had seen in the West. There seemed to be no ego or arrogance or anything related to the fact that he was doing these amazing things. This was so inspiring. He was naturally so utterly egoless, humble and devoted.
He would get guidance from Thinley Norbu Rinpoche on how to paint the faces and maybe other aspects of the paintings he did. He was one of Rinpoche’s personal painters and also his student. He had studied traditional Thangka painting , but what made his Thangkas so special was that the paintings felt very alive.
Coming from a Western painting background, this was so intriguing. It seemed this was not something you could capture from training. Something vast and magical shined through his paintings. That was a real teaching for me.
K: Its kind of cool to hear this because this is actually my favorite thing about your paintings. I have always felt that the special thing about your Thangkas is that you capture the essence of that particular deity. There is so much of the energy of the deity coming out and also so much movement. The deity is so alive – it’s so amazing to me how you do this. He must have been a good teacher!
K: You keep telling me again and again how you’re not a “traditional” Thangka painter. In fact you didn’t even want to do this interview because you felt you didn’t represent properly the tradition of Thangka painting. Personally, one of my favorite things about your Thangkas is that they are not traditional. When you say that about yourself what do you mean ?
T: There are many schools of Thangka painting. Normally when you study with a teacher, you take on their style and follow the specific rules of that tradition. The iconography, the sacred geometry or proportions of the deity and there are also the colours and landscape elements that vary from tradition to tradition. It might vary from teacher to teacher but it was my understanding that I should study for 7 years.
So while I still try to honour the tigse (the traditional proportions) and the iconography I have started to play with some of the landscape elements and some of the colours. I also think despite my attempts to let go of the western training, it seeps in …I have definitely reinterpreted colours a bit, because of my preferences , and also the vast array of pigments that are now available. I still use mostly mineral pigments, but I mix them and continue to experiment with that, and also with the landscape elements, animals, robes, and jewellery. I’m trying to use colours and shapes that feel natural and right but also honour the tradition, which I feel is what brings the blessings and life force to the painting.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche seems to encourage me to do this sometimes… and so I am playing with it, but its also a little scary because I don’t want to be disrespectful to what I have learned. I feel it is so important to understand the tradition fully before you divert from that tradition. Yet I am definitely still a student in this regard, I actually don’t know nearly enough to know which boundaries not to cross.
K: So tell me more about how Rinpoche (Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche) has been working with you with regards to your Thangka painting? You tell me that he sometimes pushes you beyond your comfort level. Can you say more about that?
T: In the beginning Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche asked me to do a painting for him, which was quite thrilling. It was the first Thangka I did for somebody. It took me forever to finish it – I don’t even remember how many years. This was about 20 years ago. I never thought I would do Thangka painting for a living. I assumed I would do it for happiness, on the side. Then, after I just had my daughter, Maya and hadn’t yet finished art school, Khyentse Rinpoche scolded me for not painting Thangkas. The initial scolding was surprising to me because I never would have had the confidence to take such a leap. Especially as I was still something of a beginner, and was nowhere close to completing the traditional length of study.
It also seemed a funny thing to do because Rinpoche has also scolded me for being impractical. I can’t really think of a more impractical livelihood, unless I measure livelihood not financially, but in terms of more long-term benefits, such as supporting sanity and reminding me of the Dharma, and maybe hopefully, if someone connects to it, supporting someone’s practice.
I feel a little funny saying he pushes me, because that’s just my version… But each painting I do pushes me, and it always feels far beyond my skills and capabilities. It is very much like jumping off a cliff . I try to get instructions from Rinpoche, but often its just a few profound words, and often ones that really challenge my preconceptions. I always want lengthy elaborate details, so I don’t ruin it! But definitely his words have influenced me utterly….
Sometimes he will make little suggestions like, “make this lotus more life-like or put a champagne bottle in the offerings” or sometimes just hearing him talk about dharma or deities or art or anything, serves as inspiration.
K: Following along that line, tell me about what inspires you in your art?
T: Probably ultimately the Dharma, and the yearning to be free, and of course the living embodiments of the deites, all the amazing Lineage Teachers. I think in the beginning, it was being around Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, my teacher Jamyang Gyatso and his mom – they were embodiments of this joy and purity. When I was young, art was joyful and innocent. When I started to study more formally, with western art – it felt like western art wasn’t cultivating areas of my being that I wanted to cultivate. I loved the idea of offering something to people that gave them joy. What was so profound about Thangka painting was it did feel as though you were offering your heart out. Remember these deities are symbols of everyone’s inherent nature, and so it isn’t your personal self-expression but it is something more universal. The forms and rules aren’t my invention and it feels very much like if I don’t let go enough and surrender to the tradition, it doesn’t flow through. So there is a balance with letting that happen but allowing my flavour in too. Also, painting for someone feels very reciprocal ~ I’m making a painting for them but it’s also their faith and devotion and trust in the path that would make them want one in the first place. That is really inspiring and I appreciate it a lot.
K: I know that most of the people who will be reading this interview will be artists as well as dharma practitioners. How do you mix dharma and art?
T: I think it’s just the same as dharma and life going together. It feels more genuine to be raw and present, to try to be awake, to offer that to the painting, but of course I get lost too, constantly, and so that’s just the aspiration…to be present, to come back again and again…
K: I agree with that. I feel this awareness really comes through in your painting.
K: So…. you have a SMALL reputation of someone who takes a long time to paint a Thangka. For those out there who don’t know you as well as I do – How many hours would you say you spend a day painting?
T: It really depends on my outer circumstances but in general, these days I would say ideally a minimum of 8-12 hours, 7 days a week unless I have to stop to clean or shop or something.
K: So you spend pretty much your every waking hour painting – even late into the wee hours of the morning?
T:I have been told to “speed up” so I’m trying to do that now. So until I figure it out I’m trying to just immerse myself in it. I am still trying to understand this because I feel the paintings do have a life of their own and. I can’t push that. At the same time, clearly I see so much letting go in myself that needs to happen, and so probably my slowness is a manifestation of that… there’s always so much more to let go of. Ideally I isolate myself and I paint as much as I can without going cross-eyed. If the spell of the painting gets broken for me by outer circumstances, its hard to come back, but I aspire to become stronger, so my outer circumstances don’t have such an effect. I’m trying to speed up by being more confident and more present and yet at the same time not fall into habits with them. If I just followed a formula they would be easier to do and faster. It’s such a balance of outer and inner elements.
K: I get so frustrated sometimes knowing how much time you spend on your thangkas and knowing that some artists out there can spend one day painting one painting and ask for $10,000 for it. Its so frustrating that there can’t be a way to value the amount of time, energy and talent that is put into your painting. I feel you should be paid SO much more for the original artwork and then sell lots of prints so that your time and energy can be monetarily rewarded. Do you think it’s worth it to work so very hard for the relatively small monetary reward?
T: It’s hard to live in this world where you have to think about things like money and putting values on your work. It’s painful and awkward. I don’t like having to talk to people about money and to charge people when doing it in the first place seems to be part of a different set of ideals. I do feel profoundly rich in being able to do something like this and get paid for it. I am thrilled that people even ask me. I feel so lucky. I just haven’t found the balance of how to do this and also have a good livelihood. In some ways it’s so crazy, I still don’t know if it makes any kind of sense. I’m always prepared for it all to fall apart and to have to get a job at McDonalds! I do have my own obstacles that I have to work out with regards to the livelihood part of it. It’s never been my strength. I am not practical and this is a blessing and a curse. I couldn’t imagine anything else in the world that I could possibly do. It so nice that there is a place for this crazy Thangka painter in this modern world! So I feel so fortunate that I have found a way to stay alive and do this.
K: So I’ve been dying to ask you… when you say Rinpoche scolded you – what did he actually say?
T: He kind of said something like: “Because you’re too insecure, you are not painting Thangkas and I have to pay other people to do it.”
K: I am so glad you listened to him! Do you have some advice you would like to give others who are inspired to become Thangka painters?
T: I think it can be a very profound discipline…. its wonderful for people who have no artistic background because as it is a craft in some sense, anyone can learn it. A lot of my friends who paint really beautiful Thangkas never drew or painted before this. Just having the openness to surrender to the form completely, and devotion to dharma, their work is beautiful and full of heart as well as technically amazing. There is the Tsering Art School in Nepal (at Shechen), Cynthia Moku in the US who is a wonderful painter and teacher at Naropa Institute. An other amazing teacher is Ngodrup Rongae in Manali. I think he has a school as well. There are many many more living masters. For someone who has artistic training, I love how Thangka painting reaches something much bigger and deeper than “self ” expression. There is so much freedom in that. The many boundaries and the lineage of this tradition seem to serve as reminders to let go of oneself ~ which is what we all aspire to do. I think all art forms can support that, with the right intention.
If you would like to buy prints of Tara’s work or if you would like to commission a piece from her, please contact her directly at email@example.com Watch this space for her new website address!