Bringing a Tibetan dream to life in Sebastopol

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.”

$140,000 gift

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.”

A Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, 79, visited the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles in February and Birmingham, Ala., last weekend. He has 10.5 million “likes” on Facebook and 9.6 million followers on Twitter.

Began last year

Dhargyal started work on the thanbhochi on July 3, 2013, estimating it would take five years to complete. The design - featuring 37 figures with a Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples in the center - is already drawn on the 300-square-foot cotton canvas, and the painting is well underway, mostly in shades of blue and green.

He uses only natural hair brushes and prepares all his paints by grinding minerals such as lapis lazuli (for blue), cinnabar (red) and sulfur (yellow) with a mortar and pestle, mixed with water and animal skin glue for permanence. He makes about eight basic colors and blends them to produce about 60 shades.

Dhargyal works from two or three hours a day to as many as 14 hours on the thanbhochi, which reaches nearly to the studio ceiling, on a 16-foot scaffold built by a company in Bodega. Only flat, basic colors are on the canvas now; the shading and other details will take far more time, with the final, incredibly fine highlights in gold purchased from Nepal and South Korea.

“The painting is a meditation,” said Reed, who has eight of Dhargyal’s thangkas of her own. “Each subject of the thanbhochi has its own ritual.”

Dhargyal, who has trained and painted for more than 15 years, is modest about his work. The hardest part of the project was preparation of the expansive canvas, stitching together two large pieces of the rough material, then applying water, mineral powder and animal skin glue to both sides and then grinding the canvas with stones to make it smooth, a lengthy chore that left his shoulders aching.

Visitors are welcome to step through the roll-up door to his studio, and Dhargyal said that “most local people know me here.”

When the thanbhochi is done, Dhargyal said he hopes to send it on a world tour and ultimately donate it to a monastery in Tibet.

“I want to share it with as many people as possible,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or

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