LARAMIE, Wyo. — On election night, when Americans closely watched voting results, a different sort of viewership was taking place in a crowded gallery at the University of Wyoming Art Museum. Artist Tashi Norbu was creating a large mural that reflected his Buddhist thangka painting training and Western painting techniques. Norbu, who was born in Bhutan, in exile from Tibet, received thangka training at the office of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. Today he is a Belgian citizen, working in the Netherlands. His artwork was recently brought to the attention of the art museum’s chief curator, Nicole Crawford, while at the Tibet Museum researching for another project.
Thangka simply means “Tibetan hanging scroll.” The scrolls traditionally are made to travel with Buddhist monks from town to town, educating people on Buddhist stories and teachings. Norbu loosely follows the protocols of a thangka painter, telling the Wyoming audience “we [thangka painters] do the prayers and rituals before painting so we will have no obstacles finishing the painting. We also write the mantras on the painting and we conclude with a small ritual.” Norbu shared that he pursed fine arts training in Europe with the aim to combine his skills into a new form of painting.
Throughout the one-hour live painting session, accompanied by three musicians, Norbu recited mantras and sometimes paused to play a hand drum. Between bursts of activity, his mantras would return in greater volume and clarity while he surveyed the canvas. The figures within the composition are monks who meditate or fly. Bright reds and brilliant yellows interrupt the color palette that at moments became muddied by the quickening pace of layering paint. Nearly 75 patrons, sitting on chairs, the floor, or leaning against walls were spellbound for the entire presentation.
Norbu wore a headset microphone and T-shirt with an image of the Buddha of his own design, tempting the cynic to label the performance as a spectacle or gimmick. It may be, but it was undeniably compelling and engaging, as was the question-and-answer session that followed. Children, college students, and senior staff were eager to learn more about the symbolism, training, and the artist’s material preferences. A student asked if the artist ever missed paintings no longer in his possession. Norbu responded clearly about detachment from things, stating, “wrong desires leads to hatred and destruction.” His faceless monks within the frame invite the viewer to identify one’s own capacity for compassion and detachment from want. His medium and method of painting may not be a thangka painter but he is still acting as a teacher, like the humble monk traversing mountains to reach new eyes and minds.
This week Tashi Norbu is offering a series of events in Laramie, Wyoming, including meditative tattoos and a workshop on painting the Buddha. The mural produced on November 6 will remain on view through July 27, 2019 and join the collection of the University of Wyoming Art Museum (2111 E Willett Dr, Laramie, Wyo.).