My Father's Death by Sonam Dolma

"My Father's Death" (2010)
49 monks' robes, tsa tsa


Self by Sonam Dolma

"Self" (2009), 16"x16"


Footprint by Sonam Dolma

"Footprint" (2010),
78"x49"


The Inner Landscape of Tibetan Artist Sonam Dolma

Starting Friday, October 1, signs of new directions in contemporary Tibetan art may be seen in West Brattleboro. Through November 30, C.X. Silver Gallery (814 Western Ave.) presents Sonam Dolma's installations, abstract paintings, and objects from her other installations. The exhibit is open for Gallery Walk on Friday, October 1, 11 to 7 pm, as well as during an artist's reception on Saturday, October 2, 4 to 7 pm. On Saturday from 2 to 3, there will also be a Hands-on Demo/Discussion on making your own clay tsa tsa -- a small, moulded and unadorned memorial offering -- to remember those you miss (free event, with donations to the Asian Cultural Center of Vermont welcome).

Sonam prepares an installation exhibit

Sonam sets up an exhibit of her installation art.


The depth and spirituality of her works relates to Sonam's Tibetan identity and worldview, yet departs from most other contemporary Tibetan art by not emulating the iconic forms of traditional Tibetan painting, sculpture, and images of daily life and arts. Her worldview is based on Tibetan and Buddhist thought yet is oriented to the entire globe as a living entity imperiled by human pollution and environmental disrespect.

The inner room of the Gallery has been redesigned into Sonam's installation "My Father's Death," which features 49 Lhasa monks' robes folded into a hexagon around an arrangement of small clay sculptures called tsa tsa. The metal mould used to make the tsa tsa is one of the few possessions her family was able to take along when they escaped from the Kongpo area of Tibet into northeastern India's Assam region in 1960. Sonam was just six then. After a year of hardships, both her younger sister and her father were dead.

Sonam explains, "My tsa tsa has the shape of the chorten that generally symbolizes the universe but at the same time also Buddha's mind." [Chorten is the Tibetan word for the stupa, a moundlike monument used by Buddhists as a focal point for prayer and contemplation.] Sonam also says that the tsa tsa represent the victims of the world.

Although there is little if any outward reference to traditional Tibetan imagery, her use of color, composition, and elements in each painting contribute to making it a vehicle for contemplation and attunement of energies. The end result of contemplating a Sonam Dolma picture may be similar to that from contemplating a traditional Tibetan thangka depicting a Buddha, or it may be the contemplation of the suffering of the world. Sonam explains that her paintings are done in an abstract fashion in accordance with the Buddhist philosophy that says every appearance is empty and illusionary.

Sonam spent this past July in a fellowship residency at the Vermont Studio Center, where she was assigned a studio space next to Brattleboro's Cai Xi Silver. The two found that they shared unconventional worldviews transcending their individual cultures.

"When I paint I do not start with a fixed idea, a preconception. The feelings that predominate slowly find a form, but sometimes this means a big struggle. Installations, on the other hand, I have long, long in my head -- some for several years."

Sonam describes her paintings as "expressions of what I experience: injustice, pollution of the environment, the power of politicians and the power of money. But they are more or less abstract not translating my feelings one-to-one in a naturalistic way. What I cannot express in words I represent in my art."

The paintings in this exhibit represent a survey of Sonam's work during the past decade, including some works created since the summer. They are also vehicles for expressing her impressions and her thinking/feeling locally and globally. "My 'White Collar' series conveys some of my first impressions in the United States in New York, where there is much money and power and where so-called important people meet -- mostly men. They are dressed in black suits, wearing white shirts that form white collars around their necks. The white collar is a symbol for me of all these powerful, extremely rich and grasping men."

To sum up, Sonam says, "My art process is about examining, being alert, taking responsibility, cleansing, shouting from within me."

Sonam has exhibited in solo and group shows in Switzerland, at the Wereld Museum in Rotterdam, and in New York and Los Angeles. Her work is featured in the current Rubin Museum catalogue for the exhibition "Tradition Transformed."

Sonam's daughter, Yangzom, has written the story of three generations: Sonam, her mother, and her daughter. The book is a best-seller in German and is due out in English by St. Martin's Press in 2011 as Crossing Many Mountains.

The exhibition is open daily through December 12, 10 am to 7 pm (call for open hours updates: 802-257-7898 ext. 2).

Copyright 2010, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont

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