Two painters twist traditions to create contemporary Buddhist artworks

13 Dec 2019

Making Modern Deities

By Kerry Parry A thangka is a Tibetan painting that depicts a Buddhist deity, often surrounded by associated gods, and describes events or myths related to religious teachings. Thangkas are made with mineral pigments applied to cotton or silk, and they also depict a particular deity’s realm as a mandala. Strict traditions define the methods, layout, dimensions and materials used to create these depictions. According to Norbulingka Institute in India, which teaches the art of thangka, “The proportions are considered sacred, as not only are they exact representations of Buddhist deities, but also the visual expression of spiritual realizations that occurred at the time of a vision.” Aspiring thangka artists spend years studying the iconographic grids and proportions of different deities, and then master the technique of mixing and applying mineral pigments.
photo courtesy Faith Stone
Karma Phuntsok and Faith Stone are trained in the formal thangka process, but the two artists are challenging the art form’s norms by placing their Buddhas in contemporary settings and using modern techniques and materials. Phuntsok, born in Tibet, fled the Chinese occupation as a child in 1959 and apprenticed with a master thangka painter in Nepal. After marrying and moving to Australia, Phuntsok became inspired by the local indigenous people and bucked thangka traditions by blending Tibetan culture with his expanding worldview. His new designs included politically satirical takes on Chinese communism, as well as contemporary icons like Batgirl and Superwoman. His bending of ancient Tibetan practices caught the eye of the Dalai Lama, which led to Phuntsok’s world-renowned recognition as an important contemporary Tibetan artist. Stone, part of a large Irish-Catholic family, grew up in the Boston area. Her world radically changed after her father died in an automobile accident. It shook Stone to her core and caused her to question her faith and seek something more meaningful. Her search led her to a spiritual practice that combines Buddhism and Hinduism. Eventually, she moved to an ashram in Boston. She and her husband later founded ashrams in Rollinsville (Shoshoni Yoga Retreat), Boulder (Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram) and Hawaii. Stone went to art school in Massachusetts, but received training in thangka painting at Naropa University, along with guidance from several Tibetan lamas. Like Phuntsok, Stone places her Buddhas in contemporary settings. Stone recalls the impression Phuntsok’s work had on her when first she saw it at CU. “Seeing Karma’s work was so inspiring. It gave me permission to move beyond the parameters of the traditional materials and settings,” she says. “My intention is to make goddesses more accessible.” In 2006 Stone wrote to Phuntsok to tell him how he inspired her. To her surprise, he wrote back and the two became friends. A show at Denver’s Chancery Art Space and a recently released book, “Karma and Faith,” resulted from their friendship and passionate pursuit of the art form. You can view Stone and Phuntsok’s thangka Buddha paintings at the Chancery Art Space through Jan. 30, 2020. For exhibit information, visit  
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