Friday, November 30, 2012

Welcome to Pohchang: Studying Buddhist Sculpture in Thailand

September 2006, North India. The moment still rings clearly in my mind. I was at a large dinner party at the new residence of Orgyen Topgyal Rinpoche. Several large sculptures by Bhutanese artists stood awaiting finishing touches in the corner. In the middle of the meal, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche calls across the room to me and says, "Minette, you should study sculpture."

Six years later I'm honored to receive a Fulbright Fellowship to study Buddhist Art in Thailand for a year. It's an amazing opportunity. So for the last three months, I've been working with the Sculpture Department at the Pohchang Academy of Art, which is part of the Rajamangala University of Technology in Bangkok. At the moment, I am the only foreigner at the school. My Thai was virtually non-existent before I came, and only a few people feel comfortable with English. 
Ajahn Pei speaking to a class

Still, the first two weeks there were nothing short of amazing. My mentor, Ajahn Somyot Kumsang--we call him Ajahn Pei, first asked me to create a relief of a seated Buddha in clay. It was a revelation. 

I've seen hundreds of Buddha images and statues, but nothing compares to the experience of forming one yourself. 

They even brought me lunch. Fried rice from the cafeteria with fish sauce and chili. 

When I finished my rough rendition, he challenged me to create a seated figure without any instruction. Needless to say, I had a million questions. How do I form the eyes? What proportions do I use? Ajahn Pei would only speak on philosophical terms. 

I ask him how to use the tools. He says, "No tools. These, these are your best tools." Pointing to his fingers and hands. Like a beginner, I think I need to use all these beautiful tools to make my work beautiful. (Some of these tools are custom made by the professors themselves.)

But after working for some time I realize that my hands can do quite a bit more than I originally thought. And I began to abandon the tools for my fingers, because they were indeed more sensitive and precise. 

Still, there was the question of what this statue should look like. So, like any liberated woman, I decided to make it in the imagine of my self. 

Of course, having no classical training in portraiture, I didn't know how to do that either. In pity, one of the other teachers, Ajahn Tamin, called his friend and  professor from the Contemporary Sculpture, Ajahn Komsan department to demonstrate. 

He made a life-sized bust of my head in the hour and a half he had before lunch. I was flabbergasted. 

Then Ajahn Tamin created a plaster cast from the clay original, and several students helped him cast the bust in fiberglass for posterity.

Nothing like seeing yourself in pieces...Removing the clay from the mold. 
  Apparently it would cost about US$ 3,000 to have my own head cast in bronze. Since I'm a bit of a nomad at the moment, I figured fiberglass may be a bit lighter to carry. 

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