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Planning to spend a few months traveling around South Asia, Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo unexpectedly found herself in search of a teacher and workshop where she could learn the process of making stitched thangka. On a tour of Tibetan businesses as part of her work for the Tibetan Central Authority (also called the Tibetan Government-in-exile), she saw artisans using silk fabric, horsehair, and silk thread to stich images of divine or inspiring figures. In Tibetan tradition, fabric artworks often depict the embodiment of Buddhist ideals in a form linked with meditation and reverence.
Painted silk thangka are easier to find, both as finished pieces and in workshops, but the stitched form known as göchen thangka is rare even in the city where the Dalai Lama lives. Thangka are both textile tradition and spiritual objects, with roots stretching back a thousand years.
Leslie's apprenticeship was a deep immersion into Tibetan culture. With serious commitment to learning the art as well as participating in the Tibetan community, she found a place in a working atelier, first making small pieces and later collaborating on larger elements of the large silk pieces. As they worked, she could sometimes hear the bells or traffic that marked the Dalai Lama's travels from and returns to his home temple.
Often called appliqué, göchen thangka are not composed of pieces of fabric laid over a ground cloth. Instead, the elements of the design are cut individually and pieced together, with silk-wrapped horsehair forming outlines between pieces. The result is a supple, subtlely textured image.
Leslie writes about her journey and her artwork in her new book, Threads of Awakening, which was published in 2022. An excerpt from the book will appear in PieceWork Spring 2023.
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Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo's website
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this episode, I made a statement that ignored the complexity, richness, and variety of spiritual practice through handcraft. Several readers were kind enough to point out the oversights, and we have edited the episode to remove the comment. Long Thread Media strives to represent and celebrate cultural diversity, now and in the past. I am grateful for the opportunity to account for and attempt repair for my error.