Interview with Kayla Komito: Tibetan Thankas and Iconic Art

April 5, 2001

How did you get into thanka painting?

I've been a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner for the last 15 years and a Buddhist for the last 22. I had utilized some of the images of the sacred feminine such as Arya Tara, in my personal paintings, but when I showed them to my teachers they said to please use the iconic patterns, proportions, etc. My teacher Tara Tulku told me it was OK to do or paint the images I practiced, such as Yamantaka or Tara, so long as I used the grid.

Then almost 5 years ago I began to do a series on Mary, deciding to study the traditional icons of her, her stance, clothing, colors. This was the closest I'd come to letting go of my personal vision and following the inspirational iconic guide of a tradition. I did however add some of my own interpretation: each having a rose placed with the figure, symbolizing her heart chakra or womb chakra or Christ or compassion and gave her faces from all over the world. This was very satisfying and I noticed that when I painted her feet in Mary in the Garden I felt heat radiate through my body and openness in my heart area. This reminded me of how much my winds [inner energies] were affected when painting the life size green Tara in correct proportion in 1991 for a Green Tara children's celebration in Golden Gate Park.

Then a fellow disciple of Denma Locho Rinpoche hunted for a thanka of her practice deity in Tibet, India, Nepal and the US, not finding one that was well done or accurate. So she asked me to do one. It was extremely fierce and complex. I was lucky to have found a 2" x 3" grid of the yidam/deity in Cho-yang magazine and blew it up to a usable size. I also had a 17th century thanka of this yidam that was extremely well done to work from for color and detail, and this deity was also my practice for the last 12 years. All these conditions made it possible for me to do this work.

Also the painting style of my personal work had always been extremely complex, bright colors, and nontraditional (in the western sense) use of watercolor with opaque areas, intense color, lots of detail, so it was very sympathetic to the Tibetan style. While I was in India in 1992-93 the brothers who painted the Kalachakra Temple in Dharamsala told me it would be very easy for me to adapt my personal style to Tibetan thanka painting and it was.

I used the proportional grid and drew the image free hand on top of it. These days many Tibetans use the "pounce" method of tracing paper with small holes to mark the outline, which I believe accounts for a more wooden image. Mine was very full of energy and life. It took me 6 months/600 hours to do the work and it really turned out well.

Then Professor Robert Thurman of Columbia University (a noted scholar of Tibetan Dharma and art, and a friend) saw the Yamantaka and commissioned a thanka painting of a rare, hard to find image of a protector. This was even more of a challenge because it was in the black thanka style. I found that after familiarizing myself with the various iconic grids such as for short fierce deities, tall fierce deities, peaceful standing bodhisattvas, seated Buddhas, etc., that I could basically take a thanka that I knew was excellent and painted in a traditional way, and work backwards, finding out which iconic grid "fit" the painting perfectly and then drawing it on top of an enlarged color xerox of the painting. Working from this was perhaps more difficult than from a linear drawing, but not impossible. I would then search my library for the best possible rendition of every aspect of the paintings to make sure the final product contained the most refined and beautiful details possible. In this case Ven. Thurman told me the finished product was a "masterpiece."

My next commission is of a fierce female aspect of the Buddha, Vajra Dakini and I'm now surrounding myself with her energy, red, doing collages of her, searching my library, reading her sadhana, mentally, spiritually preparing to do the work.

What about your personal painting?

Well that's a hard question to answer. I have found that doing the traditional iconic painting to be deeply deeply satisfying in a way my personal work wasn't exactly. I did my sacred feminine watercolors and explored that part of myself for 20 years. Its kind of like "I've been there, done that." Its hard to explain how following another's vision could be so satisfying, especially to Westerners where individual reality and vision and recognition is so important. All I can say is in doing the thankas, these images of enlightenment, that things inside me begin to move profoundly. It affected me on every level.

Part of the process of doing a traditional Tibetan thanka painting is the preparation: motivation, blessing the tools, prayer, supplication, arising as the deity, it became like a 6 month meditation retreat. All consuming. Submerging myself in a painting tradition put the ego with all its desires, aversions and so forth at peace. That didn't mean questioning didn't take place. I was constantly from my "30 year practice of art" wondering why do they do it like this, why the outline, why that style of fingers or why that color, wondering if I couldn't just do it my way or alter it, or leave it out. To learn correctly I just forced myself to "try it" and see, and it never failed to work. The outline or color or juxtaposition brought the piece to life or "connected the dots" in some unimaginable way.

But to answer your question, I haven't done any "personal work" except small collages since I began the thankas, so I don't know where it will go in the future or if I will just do thankas. This place Santa Fe and the ancient tradition of art in the Native American culture inspires me, so we'll see.

So you didn't take lessons to be a Tibetan Thanka painter?

Not exactly. I spent hundreds, thousands of hours looking deeply at Tibetan art for the last 15 years; the Wisdom and Compassion show at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in 1991, the Kalachakra Temple and so forth in Dharamsala for 8 months in 1993-94, the Mongolian show at the Asian, Yvonne Rand/Bill Sterling's personal collection, a library full of Tibetan art books, etc. I really studied it with attention to style, color and detail, minute mindful detailed attention, like some part of me knew what was coming. Both my gurus Tara Tulku and Denma Locho Rinpoche gave me permission to do it as long as I used the iconic grid. I have a book by the Jacksons on how to paint Tibetan thankas that I study. So no formal training this lifetime with a Tibetan, but a masters degree in art from the western side of art education and personal study.

Any cultural problems or issues?

Yes. I guess so. I've had mixed reactions from the Tibetan lay and monastic community, just as we have in regards to our tantric practice and their amazement at our access to masters such as Tara Tulku and Denma Locho Rinpoche. On the one hand they are kind and supportive, on another I could see their disbelief that I could do such paintings. Slowly I'm finding out more about the cultural mysteries ands attitudes about this.

An artist friend who is going to Dharamsala to train in thanka painting after 30 years as a western visionary female artist, was told that thanka painters in Tibet are men. The elderly monk/artist had only had 2 women students and they were Tibetan nuns. He made her come back 4 times before he said OK. I'd always assumed they'd make me or her start from scratch (like if you want to become an Episcopalian) but he just told her to find a thanka painting and copy it. So basically he took into consideration her 30 years of art practice, paintings unseen (but perhaps her past karma very "seen").

Tibetans seem a bit mystified and worried about Westerners involvement in tantric practice, etc., so probably this is just another perplexing issue and place of cultural bias. The teachers/gurus take into account their disciples past life connections to them, practice, etc., so its not such a mystery.

I personally have to find out about proper procedures in regards to commission, sales, payment, consecration, etc., not wanting to create bad future karma for myself.

Why the proportions?

Its believed that these images/proportions/icons came from the Buddha himself/herself in Buddhist lore. That these proportions, icons, etc., represent a perfection of body/speech/mind in terms of enlightenment, wisdom, compassion, skillful means, omniscience and release from suffering, and in meditation upon them, the blessings and imprints made upon one's mindstream propel one towards the attainment of Buddhahood. In turn, if these proportions are wrong, crooked, etc., there can be dire circumstances for the meditator or the artist.

The woman who has commissioned the Vajra Dakini said she likes my personal work so much that a Kay's impression of Vajra Dakini would be fine but I told her that truly I take the sacred proportion stuff very seriously and don't want her falling over on her khatvanga (Vajra Dakini's staff) in the moment before enlightenment because her foot's too small!, which is funny but I'm convinced true. I've seen how just drawing or painting the images affects my winds, so why not upon seeing or meditation on the image?

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