With an endorsement from the Dalai Lama and financial backing from a retired Silicon Valley executive, Tashi Dhargyal is at work in Sebastopol on an art piece unlike any other.
Dhargyal, 31, is creating a two-story tall traditional Tibetan scroll painting that he intends to finish in about four years and hopes to see travel the world before it comes to rest in a Tibetan monastery.
“I was always a hard worker,” the soft-spoken Dhargyal said in his sunlit, white-walled studio, recalling that about 10 years ago, during his training as a master thangka painter in India, he imagined “doing something special ... really big.”
The dream is coming to fruition as Dhargyal mounts a custom-built aluminum scaffold, using delicate brushes, hand-ground mineral pigments and $6,000 worth of 24 karat gold to fill a canvas, 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide, stretched tightly within a wooden frame at The Barlow, Sebastopol’s eclectic new food, wine and art center.
A thangka is a traditional Tibetan artwork, depicting Buddhas, deities and mandalas, intended to illustrate Buddhist teaching and to deepen meditation. When a thangka reaches the Brobdingnagian scale of Dhargyal’s piece, it is known as a thanbhochi, and he is creating it in a space intentionally made open to the public.
The Tibetan Gallery & Studio “will become an international destination,” said Robin Reed, the former technology engineer and executive recruiter whom Dhargyal refers to as his “patron.”
His work is the first thanbhochi done by a Tibetan master painter outside Tibet, said Reed, an investor and art collector who located Dhargyal’s studio at The Barlow and recently built herself a home near Occidental. She is underwriting the artist’s expenses and livelihood at a cost of about $140,000 a year and considers it an effort to preserve sacred art.
“I am committed to history,” said Reed, a Buddhist, noting that much of Tibetan culture has been annihilated since the Chinese occupation of the Himalayan nation in 1951. “We have to bring this back,” she said. “Preserve Tibetan art.”
The East-West collaboration stemmed from Reed’s search for an artist to produce thangkas for her personal collection. She found Dhargyal via the Internet while he was working as an artist-in-residence at Ganden Jhangtse Monastery in Dharamsala, India in 2009.
Relocate to San Francisco
Reed began commissioning works by Dhargyal, who moved to New York in 2010, exhibiting his art and teaching classes in his craft. The two finally met when Reed flew Dhargyal to California in 2011 and subsequently convinced him to relocate to San Francisco, owing to the strength of the Bay Area’s Buddhist community.
As Reed tells the story, she wanted to take on a meaningful, long-term project and Dhargyal suggested the thanbhochi, a fulfillment of his longstanding dream. In need of a studio with a 24-foot ceiling and public exposure, they settled on The Barlow as the place for it to take shape.
When Dhargyal applied to the Sebastopol Planning Commission for a use permit last year, he presented an exceptional credential: A letter from the Dalai Lama, whom he had met in September 2012 in Dharamsala, where the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader resides.
“While commending his artistic skill, His Holiness stressed the importance of preserving the Tibetan tradition of thangka painting and the importance of maintaining its quality,” the letter said. “We would therefore appreciate it if Mr. Dhargyal were afforded encouragement and necessary support in his work towards preserving Tibetan Thangka art.”