An Interview with Norbu Lhatso
The artist likens her works to a spiritual prayer.
Gael Preston Talyor, November 19, 2020
Norbu Lhatso is a Tibetan painter who migrated to the US in her twenties. She currently lives in Vermont, breeding silkworms and cultivating currants on her forest farm. Lhatso’s latest solo exhibition "Reverie" reveals influences from her practices of yoga and meditation, exploring her dreamscape and pursuit of selflessness. Introduced by a mutual friend in New York, the photographer Zongxuan Chi, we met at her studio in Bennington, Vermont.
Norbu Lhatso (b. 1981), Self-Portrait, Mixed media
Image courtesy of the artist.
Norbu studied art history at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and went on to get a Masters in Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She fell in love with the Himalayas while in college and began teaching herself how to paint. "My formal training really only extended to my thesis, which was a culmination of over 20 years of work on Tibetan art and culture," Norbu says, "I feel that a lot of art at the moment takes a wannabe approach that does not explore the natural world or where it takes place. Most artists work in studios or close proximity to it. I work outside in the forests."
Norbu Lhatso (b. 1981), Time and Tide, Acrylic on canvas
Image courtesy of the artist.
Gael: When did you begin drawing?
Norbu: I first started painting when I was in the tenth grade. For my high school graduation project, I had a show where I painted two landscapes. The art teacher liked my work so much that she took me to a very famous Tibetan guru, Tsong Khapa, the third lama of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. He sat down with me and explained the structure of the paintings I had painted. Then I painted his portrait and a line drawing of him.
Gael: How did you originally become interested in dream yoga and meditation?
Norbu: I got really interested in dream yoga and meditation when I was doing my training as a Buddhist nun. I had a lot of experiences in my dreams that really helped me to get to the core of who I am as a person and how I approach life. When you find that there are these energetic impulses that you can’t quite explain, I think that’s really powerful. Dream yoga is the yogic practice of going inside yourself and doing yoga during your dreams. Tibetan Buddhism is an ancient, mystical religion that values art and mysticism. The Tibetan Buddhist religion stresses the importance of dreaming. According to Tibetan Buddhism, dreaming is important because it makes us more aware of ourselves and gives us more power. When we learn to dream, we learn to meditate in the dream world, or the zone. Tibetan Buddhists consider the dream state to be the spiritual realm. Buddhism teaches that when we are in the dream state, we are in the realm of karmic law.
Gael: Your latest series focuses on the spiritual practice of dream yoga. How did this series develop?
Norbu: I started working with the tools I’ve been learning over the years. I would sit in a lotus position and meditate and dream I was flying or driving a Ferrari or doing other things. I saw all these amazing things that I had never imagined before. I’ve also had a lot of practice doing yoga. I’ve spent time in a meditation room, although it was not a Buddhist center. So it was not the same, but I was aware that there are people that have experienced similar things.
Gael: Your dream paintings also relate to the wildness and freedom of nature. What inspired you to combine dream yoga with the thrill of forest exploration in your artwork?
Norbu: I moved to Vermont in 2008 and I started exploring this whole forest that I didn’t even know existed before. Then in 2013, I started a painting series called “The Forest Ecosystem.” It’s this long drawing that’s a series of crops. It starts at the bottom and when you reach the top, you have no idea what’s going on or how it’s supposed to go. It’s just an island of the work, this little patch of land. I also have a series called “The Cosmology of Nature” and I did it in 2015. I’m now in the process of digitizing it. In the picture above you can see the old book of mine that I’m using as a canvas. It’s kind of an encyclopedia of my paintings. So I will work on a series of a little farmhouse, a small village, a post-modern cathedral. It will all be on the same scale and then when I print the images on my paper I draw around the place. This is kind of what the original idea of the piece was. When you get closer, the tiny details become important.
Norbu Lhatso (b. 1981), Trackless, Acrylic on canvas
Image courtesy of the artist.
Gael: You are also a founding member of the artist collective "B0NA F1DE," which is composed of a wide range of international artists. Can you tell me about your artist collective and why you became interested in such a collaboration?
Norbu: I started making art when I was 20 years old. From then on I started to participate in group shows, installations, and interdisciplinary collaborations. With B0NA F1DE I was influenced by the presence of positive thinkers such as the painter-philosopher Solomon R. Guggenheim, who were interested in connecting art, science, and philosophy. I also was influenced by the provocative artist and Zen Buddhist teacher Kodo Sawaki. It was his voice in the 1980s that inspired me to take a more spiritual and meditative approach in my work. I wanted to develop an art language that is interdisciplinary, non-functional, non-representational, and holistic, linking art and non-art realms.
Gael: Have you ever had a moment when you questioned your career entirely?
Norbu: I sometimes take myself too seriously. I feel like when I am being my truest self, that’s when my best work comes out. And it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. So when I am in the studio or in the garden, I am being myself, completely. When I am with my kids, I’m being myself. I think it just comes from a deep place.
Gael: What advice would you give to a young artist following in your steps?
Norbu: Choose a project and do it. You can start with just one thing or go big. Don’t always choose a particular medium, choose something. If you like to paint, paint. If you like to dance, dance. For example, some people enjoy diving into a work of art. Take your time. It will evolve, and you can do it forever.
Gael: How do you define yourself as an artist?
Norbu: I am not an artist. I don’t sell my work, I don’t get commissions, and I am not an academician who will publish my writings. I am a human being who creates, and I know what I am doing.
Gael: Can you tell us about your future exhibition ideas?
Norbu: I am in the middle of creating my first, and last, series of silk paintings which I plan to exhibit in December and January. While I love painting silk in its own right, I also want to use it to reach out to the viewers, the “you” who are not easily seen by others, and show a reflection of myself.
Gael Preston Taylor is the co-founder of the digital arts platform "dailyart.org" and the senior curator of "Make Better" Gallery in New York.