A master brings his tradition to Pagosa

This summer, Pagosans will have a unique opportunity to learn an ancient Tibetan art form, while simultaneously helping to foster and promote the arts and vocational education of the next generation of young and impoverished Tibetan students.

Tibetan legend tells about the origins of this ancient art in the seventh century: There was a shepherd who herded his sheep on a mountain. One day, he was on the mountain and it began to rain, but the sun was still shining. In the rainbow he saw a beautiful lady. He fell in love with her and chased and chased the rainbow, but could never catch her. She disappeared. She kept coming into his mind after that. Finally he decided to draw her on a stone. He took the stone and put it next to his bed. People came and asked about the beautiful painted woman. They talked about her in the village, and from then on, the drawings were called “rimo.” And so, the story goes, the rimo style of Tibetan Buddhist painting was born. “Ri” comes from the word “mountain” and “mo” means feminine.

Beginning in May, Pagosans will have a chance to learn about and practice this age-old rimo art. The Tibetan master painter and former monk, Lama Gyurme, who lives and paints here at the Buddhist retreat center, Tara Mandala, about 20 miles outside of Pagosa Springs, plans to offer a painting class highlighting some of the ancient teachings and techniques of this Buddhist tradition of Mantang painting — rimo is one style of many in the Mantang painting tradition.

The tuition for this class, and several other art classes to follow, will benefit the not-for-profit Galmalisho Art School that Lama Gyurme founded in Tranang County in southern Tibet for students who cannot afford the price of an education. Lama Gyurme will teach classes at the Pagosa Springs Community Center for three Saturdays in May and June to share his knowledge and method with Pagosa artists, aspiring artists, people interested in Buddhist tradition — in short, with anyone who would like to sign up for the class. The class is open to all levels. It will include teachings about history, the rich symbolism of Buddhism and the technique used in Tibetan Buddhist temples.

Lama Gyurme was hired by the founder of Tara Mandala, Lama Tsultrim Allione, to paint the temple under construction at Tara Mandala. He was a Buddhist monk for 20 years, and he has been a painter of the “sacred art” paintings for 25 years. He has also authored a book in the Tibetan language on the art history of Tibetan traditional painting.

The painting class the Lama is offering in May and June will start with drawing a Buddha, including how to divide and use proportion. Then, students will progress to watercolor. Lama Gyurme will individualize the class for each student, according to their skills and needs. The final project will include painting a beautiful Buddha image.

“In Tibet,” said Lama Gyurme, “when you learn this type of painting, you study full-time with a master teacher. For at least a month, you ‘paint’ with a stick. When you are good enough,” explained the Lama, “you are given paper and a pencil. Then, after you are good enough at that, you are allowed to use paint.”

In his country’s tradition, Lama Gyurme said, art students must also follow a progression in what subjects they are allowed to paint. Starting, for example, with floral pieces before they are allowed to move on. When they have mastered the florals, they are allowed to paint parts of the Buddha, explained the Lama, but the parts must be painted separately. When that is mastered, they are allowed to paint a whole Buddha. Tibetans believe if the Buddha is painted poorly, they are accruing bad karma, so these steps are taken. However, students of Lama Gyurme’s Mantang painting class here in Pagosa should not fear — the Pagosa instruction will be less rigorous and rule-bound.

Beyond the historical and pedagogical significance of Mantang painting lies yet another level of meaning from the art. In Tibet, paintings are closely related to health care. According to Lama Gyurme, Tibetans visit monks or lamas for medical care and help with life problems. The monks give the patients medicine, a meditation practice, and they create paintings or sculptures of the sick person that are then given in offering to whatever is causing the problem.

“The art is meant to be a gift to the problem or life obstacle, to be taken instead of the actual person, leaving the actual person free,” explained Dominque Wynnde, who is helping Lama Gyurme publicize his upcoming art classes.

Lama Gyurme is planning a class this summer, among several others, where students can learn to create these art offerings, and also go through the ritual for either getting good health or sending away obstacles. The practice is called sherningdutdog. It is also considered a “wisdom” teaching.

In a way, all of the art classes that Lama Gyurme will instruct are a lesson in offerings. Fifty percent of all proceeds from the whole summer series of classes will go to the Galmalisho Art School, founded by the Lama in 2007, and now run by the Lama’s brother (a master carver) and brother-in-law.

Students from the village and from all over Tibet learn carpentry and Tibetan traditional art carving. Additionally, as the Galmalisho School grows, they plan to teach traditional sacred painting and traditional music. The students live at the school; and lodging, food and education is provided at no charge to students. The Lama explained that these are very poor students who could otherwise not afford schooling. It is very difficult there to survive without any schooling. “After they learn and begin making carvings, the carvings are sold and this gives the students money for clothing,” said Lama Gyurme.

Last year, the Lama raised money to build showers in the school. The school teaches the students and also the villagers how to use these new showers to stay clean. Typically, villagers would only take a shower one time a year, but these new showers and education about hygiene will help cut down on transfer of disease and illnesses for the people there. The Lama explained that there are always new projects and more students who need help, so he hopes these art classes will allow him to raise more funds for the school.

To this end, Lama Gyurme would also like to offer an option for Pagosans to sponsor a scholarship for students who would otherwise not be able to receive schooling in Tibet. A $400 donation would fund one Tibetan student for a year. In recognition of such a contribution towards education, any scholarship sponsors may attend all summer classes without charge. One-hundred percent of this scholarship money will go towards funding the non-profit Galmalisho Art School student foundation.

The Mantang painting class will be held May 30, June 6 and 13 from 1-4 p.m. Students are asked to bring a ruler, a pencil, white paper (printer/copy paper is fine), and an eraser. Lama G will provide paint. The cost for the three Mantang painting classes is $105 total, or students can sponsor a Tibetan student for $400 and attend all of Lama Gyurme’s Pagosa classes this summer.

The complete schedule of classes to be offered in Pagosa this summer is not yet finalized, but courses will include a four-week Tibetan sculpture clay mask class, Lama Gyurme has studied and taught painting all over the world, including in Italy, where he first taught the clay mask sculpture class. The Lama reports the class was a lot of fun, and a huge success. Later, there will be a two-week sherningdutdog class. Then, the Lama will offer a two-week class concerning how to build a stupa, and finally a mandala painting class. All classes are planned for Saturdays, from 1-4 p.m. Lama Gyurme is also interested in teaching privately, in the evenings or on Sundays either in student’s homes, or at Tara Mandala, also for the purpose of raising funds for the Galmalisho School. Contact Dominique Wynnde at (415) 846-0395 for more information about any of these possibilities.

Photo courtesy Lama Gyurme
Lama Gyurme painting. Lama Gyurme is a master Tibetan painter with over 25 years of training and experience. This summer, Pagosans will have the unique opportunity to study Tibetan painting technique under his tutelage.