I was born in 1958, into a family of farmers and sheepherders, in the ancient Buddhist community of Yolmo, which is located in Northern Nepal on its border with Tibet. There were no artists or painters in my family, and yet at 9 years of age I was discovered to be a prodigy by Palden Lama, a most highly respected and revered master Thangka painter (who painted 108 temples and monasteries during his lifetime.) Almost immediately, I began my study and apprenticeship with Palden Lama, which included a complete traditional curriculum of foundational training in the making and preparation of tools, materials and paints, as well as in the study of proportion. I rapidly advanced in my studies and in the development of my abilities, such that within a few years I was able to produce complete Thangka on my own. I studied and became fluent in the two major “styles” or “schools” of Thangka painting, Mendi and Karma Gadri.
At age 15, after the death of my beloved first teacher and benefactor, I walked 5 days through the mountains and jungles of Nepal to Kathmandu City to study and work with my second teacher, the young, but already accomplished master Thangka painter and artist, Jigme Lama. Under Jigme Lama’s guidance, I further elevated and refined my technical craft and art and also began working commercially, exhibiting my work at the Nepal Branch of the October Gallery (solo 1990), Nepal Art Association Exhibit at the Tradition Art Gallery(group 1992), Siddhartha Art Gallery(group 1994) in Kathmandu, Nepal and in the Davos Switzerland Art Center(solo 1991), Davos, Switzerland and at the Yoga Institute (solo 1993) in Munich, Germany. From 1982-1996, I painted wall murals in three Buddhist monasteries in Yolmo and Kathmandu, Nepal and owned and operated a 4-7 student studio in Kathmandu for the training and development of other young thangka painters. Also, during this period (1985- 1999) I began restoration work on Thangkas and statues at monasteries in Kathmandu, Nepal, France, Hawaii and in Watsonville, California at the Vajrayana Foundation using natural pigments, acrylics and gouache paints.
Yolmo (Helambu,Northern Nepal)
My parents and relatives
In 1988, me and my art were discovered by the revered Tibetan Buddhist teacher and scholar Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, who invited me to significantly expand my painting and exhibiting activities in Europe. During the next seven years, I was both commissioned to paint and exhibited my art in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and France.
In 1991, the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich in Zurich,Switzerland commissioned me to paint the Kalachakra mandala. This painting, using only natural pigment, is still on exhibit and is 32 " by 34 " unframed and took one year to paint.
In 1994,while exhibiting my art in Switzerland, I met Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, founder of the Vajrayana Foundation in Watsonville, California. Lama Tharchin had been looking for an artist to paint the Dudjom Tersar Lineage Tree for his temple, but had not been able to find one who had the technical skill for this project. When he saw the exhibition of my work, Lama Tharchin knew that he had finally found the right thangka painter for the job. As a result of this meeting, in 1996, Lama Tharchin Rinpoche invited me to settle in the United States, to paint and teach under the auspices of the Vajrayana Foundation and commissioned me to paint the Dudjom Tersar Lineage Tree. This project ,unframed at 5 ½ feet by 8 feet, took two years to complete. The work is very precise, detailed and meticulously executed. Many of the fine lines on this painting are made with brushes of only a few bristles. The skill that it takes to paint these lines without a trace of a wiggle is the result of 30 years of daily practice.
Lama Tharchin Rinpoche and myself, Summer Retreat 1998
For the past 10 years I have been painting by commission, teaching, and exhibiting my work throughout the San Francisco Bay Area . My most recent solo exhibits have been at Pro Arts Gallery (August 2000) in Oakland, the California Institute for Integral Studies (Summer 2000) in San Francisco, the Sanchez Art Center (September 2001 thru March 2002) in Pacifica , City Picture Frame Gallery in San Francisco (August/Sept 2003), California Institute for Integral Studies Juried Exhibit(group/Sept 2003)in San Francisco,Boise State Universty,Student Union Gallery(Sept-Nov 2004) in Idaho, The Evergreen State College in Olmpia,Washington(June/July 2004,Feb 2005,July 2005),Private Show in Carmel,California(June 2007) where I have exhibited thangkas and my newer non traditional secular work. I have been teaching private Tibetan painting workshops 4-6 times a year since 2000 all over the San Francisco Bay Area by invitation and recently (Sept 2007/Oct 2007) teaching a four days Tibetan Painting class scheduled for 4 Weeks at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz. I also regularly give slide presentation talks on the "history of Thangka painting" that are well received and very popular.
Historically, for cultural and religious reasons, Thangka painters only paint sacred art. When I came to the United States, in spite of these prohibitions, I was inspired to expand my work by blending eastern and western concepts, and as a result for the last 10 years I have been painting a series of expressive secular non traditional scenes from my childhood depicting Tibetan life and culture. This synergistic blend of east and west, internal spiritual and external western material, is creating a challenging and exciting new phase in my work and in my life as an artist.
I consider myself as a very dedicated teacher, artist and a serious lifelong Buddhist practitioner, who is kind and gentle, brave and adventuresome. I have been a working artist my entire adult life and my work is my life. Fluent in English, Tibetan, Nepali, Yolmo dialect, and Hindi, i am an engaging, humble, self educated man from one of the most isolated and remote areas of the world. I was born into poverty and caste tradition, and yet through the strength of my art and the determination of my spirit, I overwhelmed the odds and came to the United States to develop my work and carry on my skills and training. By bringing this ancient knowledge to the West,I hope to continue to preserve and honor the traditions and technical purity of thangka painting by developing a first generation of American thangka painters.
- Kumar Lama