NORTH ADAMS -- Painter Ang Tsherin Sherpa was trained in Nepal in the art of traditional Buddhist painting technique, but moving to America sent him on a spiritual journey that expanded his views of Buddhism, as well as the way his paintings expressed that.
Sherpa's work is on view as part of "Freedom, Just Another Word For " which opens at KidSpace at Mass MoCA on Saturday, June 15.
Sherpa mainly concerns himself with the world of Tibetans post-1959, following the uprising and the flight of the 14th Dalai Lama, which resulted in tens of thousands of Tibetans in exodus from their homeland. He makes use of the traditional Tibetan spirits as a way of expressing what happened to the Tibetan people.
"I was trying to reimagine these spirits," said Sherpa. "What is the essence of these spirits? For me it's kind of like the collective mental phenomenon of the people of that region, so when a group of people left Tibet, does that mean the spirits traveled with them, and if so, how would they adapt to new environments? What would it be like? So reimagining those things."
The spirits emerge from traditional Tibetan imagery, and Sherpa's concern is with what these spirits mean outside of their native land -- and what that means in the wider picture for Tibetans.
"Sometimes, in the back of my mind, what I'm also thinking of is what happens when an object, be it a sacred object or any object, is displaced from its own environment," Sherpa said. "That's an exploration. I'm always trying to merge very contemporary objects, contemporary scenario with this very traditional-looking deity. Since all my life I painted those images as a traditional artist, I thought this could be my medium, or vocabulary, to communicate in the current situation."
Sherpa studied traditional art, called thangka painting, with his father -- it was a multi-generational pursuit in Sherpa's family. He mastered the form, though it did not allow for self-expression.
"In the traditional art, there is not much creativity," he said. "You just paint what has been painted before so many years. I guess the contemporary work allowed me to have a little voice of my own, and view or perception."
Sherpa began the process that lead to his current work when he moved to America in 1995, and started teaching traditional painting at Buddhist centers. His interaction in the beginning was mostly with other Buddhists, but over time he began to make contact with people outside that circle, including young Tibetans who did not follow Buddhism, and he began to apply these experiences to his own Buddhist practice.
"I came to realize from the Buddhist point of view, I think, if one is able to transform oneself or one's view based on the surrounding or environment, the essence remains the same, but because of the different environment, the method keeps changing," Sherpa said. "To me it was like, ‘how do we merge between the spiritual practice and everyday life, and should there be a gap between mundane and sacred?' I think as soon as we create that gap, or create that distinction, then sacred just remains sacred and mundane just remains mundane, then it doesn't merge. Without that merging, the view of so-called enlightenment is probably not working."
Buddhism was supposed to be malleable, but Sherpa found it less so in certain communities, and goes so far as to describe it as "rigid" in those situations.
"Rigidity creates separation. Buddhism, I don't really view it as an institutionalized religion, for me, at least," he said. "I think of it as a way of life, how to live life, so the method could be a thousand different methods, not rigid. Depending on different methods, it should be malleable."
Sherpa also credits time spent in Taiwan and India as contributing to his transformation.
"Being in all these different places helped me look at different cultures from different perspectives," Sherpa said. "I feel that with human nature, we have a prejudiced view toward the unknown, or we make up our own ideas about the unknown -- culture, people, anything -- and it becomes stereotyped. As I began to settle here in America, interacting with various different kinds of people of different cultures, it opened up doors for me to see my own Buddhist practice in a broader way."
Sherpa explored the style he currently employs as a way of rectifying the Tibetan culture he grew up in with the other cultures he intersected with, including the young Tibetans he encountered.
There is a secular aspect to any religion that is expressed as part of the culture it services, apart from any spiritual belief, and Buddhism is no different. The supernatural side embedded in Tibetan culture functioned on a symbolic level in storytelling, and Sherpa saw the value in reconnecting these traditions with young Tibetans, who he felt were detached from their own culture.
Sherpa viewed his work as a possible bridge that mirrored his own journey in understanding the place of tradition in the realm of progression -- or, as Sherpa puts it, what lies between "the sacred and the mundane."
"To me, it's a metaphor, because the Tibetan culture is so strongly ingrained with these kinds of characters," he said, "although there are deities, very scary-looking deities, both male and female, that symbolize the essence of wisdom and compassion, so there is lots of symbolism in Buddhist imagery. Since all my life I painted those images as a traditional artist, I thought this could be my medium, or vocabulary to communicate in the current situation."
"Sometimes those who are living in the West, or interacting with the broader world, may find it very difficult with traditional methods because it's very narrow. How do we speak the language of today, something that someone can relate to? Of course, new works will have social commentary, political statements. Everything can be explored too , all of these elements, not just the religious aspect."
Find Sherpa online at tsherinsherpa.com