Visitors to this year’s Imagination Celebration event will get the chance to learn a little about Tibetan culture and watch Sonam Phuntsok paint a Bodhisattva – a Tibetan icon.
Phuntsok will share Thangka painting, the folk art of painting Buddhas and Bodhisattvas at the June 18 event.
“Everywhere I go, I demonstrate and let people ask questions so I can share my knowledge,” Phuntsok said.
When he received a postcard in the mail about Waunakee’s Imagination Celebration, it seemed like the perfect venue for him, he said.
“I thought it was a good place to share my knowledge,” Phuntsok said.
Unlike other artists who don’t like interruptions when they work, Phuntsok said he welcomes questions.
“I want people to disturb me. Then I can express my culture,” he said.
This isn’t the first chance he’s had to demonstrate his work. In 2006, he was commissioned to paint a 16-by 22-foot Thangka mural of “the Future Buddha” at Pacific Northwest College in Portland, Oregon, where he lived at the time.
PBS filmed him painting, and college students there asked questions along the way. Once a week, the public was invited in to see him work. The mural has since been donated to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.
Phuntsok has been in the United States since 2005, and said his family is now in India in a large Tibetan refugee community.
Phuntsok came to the United States as a refugee then obtained his citizenship, he said. He has led an interesting life. At 12 years old, he was adopted by his uncle who was a meditator, healer and master of Buddhist science and arts such as inconography, or Thangka.
Six years later, he traveled to Paris, France, as a fine arts and French language student. He moved back to India later to study Tibetan grammar, poetry, orthography and Buddhist teachings, and then later to Darjeeling to study Tibetan medicine. For several years, he studied with Buddhist masters.
Phuntsok said Tibetan Buddhism is different in that it has millions of Buddhas.
“It represents millions of thoughts,” he said. “In one second, we can have millions of thoughts.”
A Buddha is fully enlightened, and a Bodhisattva is not yet enlightened but on the way.
At the Imagination Celebration Phuntsok will paint Vajrasattva, a Bodhisattva he described as the protector of a diamond.
“He looks very scary,” Phuntsok said.
Asked if he sells his work, Phuntsok said Tibetan culture discourages such commerce.
“It’s not based on business. It’s based on generosity. It’s based on commission,” he added.
The artist must accept whatever amount the buyer is willing to pay in advance, sometimes just a meal. Usually, such works are done after a person dies. The family then goes to the priest to learn which Bodhisattva should be painted.
“The artist will paint whatever according to what the priest prescribes,” Phuntsok said.
Still, Thangka painters make a living.
“If you are a painter of inconography, you will never die of hunger. People without money will offer you food,” Phuntsok said.
The same custom exists for physicians, as well, he added. The culture is now changing, a transformation Phuntsok attributed to human nature.
Phuntsok, who is also a CNA, has lived with his wife and two sons in Waunakee since 2010. Both boys attend Waunakee High School.
The Imagination Celebration event will run from 3-8:30 p.m. at Waunakee High School. Phuntsok’s painting will be one of several demonstrations, exhibits and performances that afternoon.