Deities, Pigments, and Borders: Pema Rinzin mastered Tibetan art, then climbed on its shoulders
Tucked in his cozy three-room Williamsburg apartment, where he’s lived for the last ten years, Pema Rinzin raises his eyebrows as he wonders who is ringing his doorbell at a quarter to six on a cold January night. It turns out to be one of his students at the New York Tibetan Art Studio, which takes up most of the place. Pema asks what day it is and expresses surprise that it is Monday night already! Soon more students walk in for their Monday class.
Rinzin is a 51-year-old artist who has completed more than 70 paintings since he left his three-year stint as the Artist-in-Residence at the Rubin Museum in October 2008. He devotes weeks, at least, to each one of his paintings, and has been doing so for years. So it is easy for him to lose track of time. His art-induced forgetfulness has occasionally put him at odds with civic authorities. He had the water meter taken out by police for nonpayment of the water bill, and a warrant was issued against him. He ended up having to shell out $5,000.
Over the last eight years, he has been introducing Tibetan art and late master Tibetan artists—their style, body of work—and passing the craft to other artists in New York. But for himself, he found a way to honor this tradition but break free of its heavy burden.
Rinzin uses Sumi ink, ground mineral pigments, and gold on canvas. His students—about 40 of them over the years—have been a mix of gender, race, and professions, but all bound by the same desire to learn the art, and by their respect for Rinzin’s work. They spend anywhere from a few years to a decade learning from him. Sometimes they do more than that. It was his students who convinced him to go to a hospital when he fell really sick one time.
The only room in his apartment that is not used as class or studio is the one with all the books he has collected over the years from all over—a dingy bookshop tucked at the back in DaryaGanj in Old Delhi, and other shops in Japan, Germany, and the U.S. It is not uncommon for Rinzin to fly across a border to acquire a rare book or a particular color pigment for an artwork.
His own journey started years ago, during a complex juncture in Tibet’s history. He was born along the border of Tibet and Nepal in 1960 when Tibetans continued to flee the brutal Chinese occupation of Tibet into exile in India. His earliest memories were of the Tibetan Children Village (TCV) School in Dharamsala, India, formed in May 1960 under the guidance of the Dalai Lama and care of his late elder sister, Tsering Dolma.
In early 70’s, under the leadership of the Dalai Lama’s younger sister, Jetsun Pema, it was registered under the Societies Registration Act, India and also became a prime member of SOS Kinderdorf International. It started by catering to the overall growth of children of refugees to becoming an institution that succeeded in providing “modern education with a sound understanding of Tibetan identity and culture” for generations of Tibetans in exile. Rinzin grew up in one of the scores of foster homes, with an average of 40 each, boys and girls in Upper TCV, the main branch of TCV Schools.
Creativity and adaptability came early, as the kids sought ways to stay entertained in the huge school environment, where the resources were always scarce and the days were long. “I remember these books that came from Canada. We would open it and divide the two sides of the page among two friends and then pretend to eat everything on the pages,” He said. “With cars and toys, we see who can count the fastest.” As he got little older, he found his thrill in earning treats from teachers for helping create study material—like the element charts for science class, or alphabet charts accompanied by pictures.
In 1979, when he was in 5th grade, he knew he wanted to pursue painting, and became a full-time art student in the school, which primarily teaches traditional Tibetan art of Thangka painting. Thangka is an age-old tradition of painting intricate Buddhist deities on cloth scrolls, to be hung in monasteries and other places of worship.
In keeping with the TCV’s motto “Come to Learn, Go to Serve,” Rinzin found a job as the drawing teacher in a sister school upon graduating from the course at 17. He worked as the sole art teacher in the school for eight years, from 1983 to 1991. In 1995, he came to the U.S. on a tourist visa and visited several states across the country and explored the art scene, especially in New York.
To his astonishment, he discovered that Tibetan Art was not represented here at all. He returned to India to master the centuries-old tradition of Thanka painting. Through sheer interest, he found the opportunity to work and learn from Thanka masters like Kalsang Oshoe, Khepa Gonpo, and Rigdzin Paljor. Even in the 1990s, these artists were keeping the traditional Tibetan art alive, relying on the practice of commissioning of Art, where rich patrons or powerful religious heads pay for exclusive artwork. The confidential nature of the transaction means their work was not easily accessible.
Rinzin’s immediate inspiration came from a Japanese artist who was learning Tibetan traditional Art in Dharamsala, like himself. The work ethic and accuracy of this artist’s painting in comparison to his teacher piqued Rinzin’s interest and served as a motivation. “If a non-Tibetan can replicate such good work,” he asked himself, “Why can’t I?”
He developed an acquaintance with the artist and was invited by Shoko Culture and Research Institute in Nagano, Japan to work as a lecturer and Artist in Residence. Rinzin accepted and worked in Japan from 1995-2004. In his last few years there, he spent time juggling between Japan and Wurzburg, Germany, where he worked as an artist-in-residence at the Brush & Color Studio.
In 2005, Rinzin was invited by the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC, on a recommendation from David Jackson, a Tibetan Art expert. The planned three-month artist-in-residence contract became three years. It was exciting for him, he said, but also wearing. The curators at the museum never quite warmed up to Rinzin’s assertion of individuality as an artist, which contradicts the established notion of Western Tibetan art experts that Tibetan Art—being historically driven by religion and practice of commissioning—is rooted in Artists maintaining their anonymity.
Rinzin felt bitter, cornered, and lost. He began to feel anonymous in the sea of artists in New York, and sad about the general lack of understanding and appreciation of Tibetan traditional art. At the same time, Rinzin was buoyed by the air of possibilities in the city, his undying passion for art, and the strength that comes from having practiced it for decades and having nothing to lose.
With time, he says, he was able to channel his passion for art and experienced something akin to a rebirth. He suddenly knew what to do.
Rinzin switched to contemporary art, integrating his training in traditional Tibetan art and his years of experience painting in various part of the world. “Part of the problem was difficulty in reading Tibetan Art,” he says. “When I switched to Contemporary Art, suddenly people can read my work, and this brought my work close to art lovers.”
Represented by The Joshua Liner Gallery, on W 28th St., he has had three solo shows since leaving the Rubin museum and is working on his next show. His works have been displayed at international exhibitions too, and collected by museums, institutes, and studios he has worked with, and, of course, individual art aficionados and collectors.
His Brooklyn apartment cum school & studio has become a sanctuary. He makes it a point to walk around the neighborhood he has begun to know over the years, constantly running into people he knows on the street, an acquaintance or a shopkeeper.
This particular afternoon, in January, he walks till he reached his favorite Mexican restaurant, Rosarito Fish Shack, in Bedford. In one of his customary conversations with one of the waiters, it was pointed out that avocados could become a rarity in the wake of Donald Trump’s possible higher tax on Mexican imports. Rinzin brooded a little, about the state of things.
Back in his room, he remembered the conversation. “We are all under threat,” he said. “Art and music are what keeps the city alive. New York will not be New York if it is not for its arts.”