ART BY KARMA PHUNTSOK
Born in Lhasa, Karma Phuntsok was a child when his family fled Tibet in 1959, after the failed uprising against the Chinese. Like 80,000 other refugees that year, they followed His Holiness the Dalai Lama through the Himalayas into exile. However humble their beginnings, the Phuntsoks strove for comfort in their new home, thankful to be free of the oppression they experienced under Chinese rule, where citizens were taught to revere Mao and despise the Dalai Lama. For ten years, Karma enjoyed a formal education in Sikkim, through a system of refugee schools. He particularly excelled at drawing and painting. Over the years, his interest in art grew. True to his hard-working culture, he took on many jobs with unsinkable enthusiasm before he decided to earn a living as an artist. In 1973 he began to study with a master Tibetan Thangka painter in Nepal.
Working with diligence and showing great promise, Karma Phuntsok lived with the master 24 hours a day. He learned the secrets of distemper techniques, creating traditional mineral and organic paints by collecting stones from far-off
places, grinding them by hand with a mortar and pestle. He learned how to mix the pigments with egg, to temper them with herbs and glue, how to hem the silk or cotton canvases and string them properly within a wooden frame. He learned how to prime the canvases with an amalgam of rabbit-skin glue and chalk, stretching them tight before ever lifting a brush to the surface. His apprenticeship required that he master not just the discipline of painting Tibetan Buddhist deities, but also the iconometric principles which underlie every Thangka composition.
By 1974, after an intense year-long apprenticeship, Karma Phuntsok became (and has remained) a full-time professional thangka painter. In 1978, while still living in Nepal, Karma met his future wife Carol, and within a few years they moved to Australia. This change of scenery and culture unleashed boundless creativity in his art, unveiling the similarities between Aboriginal and Thangka styles. Both traditions use mineral and organic pigments primed with natural binders, both make elaborate use of geometric patterns and both revolve around complex imagery, to produce works of art loaded with allegory. Artists of both Thangka and Aboriginal styles employ metaphor to bring ancient myth and ceremony to life. Moving to Australia proved richly rewarding for Karma’s work, as he began to entwine Tibetan artistic traditions with Aboriginal themes and methods. His discovery of the airbrush adds street-cred and contemporary flair to his distinct blend of ancient styles to create masterpieces that are as daring and modern as they are traditional and reverent.
Karma now lives with his wife in a charming, isolated cottage in the rolling bushland north of Kyogle. For decades, the only exception to solar power was the fuel he used to occasionally fire up the generator for his airbrush compressor. However, he has willfully succumbed to intermittent wifi, so he can stay connected to his grandkids and contacts through FaceBook & Instagram, even while in the bush. In his life and his art, he’s constantly evolving. The dense forest visible from the clearing around their home lays fertile groundwork for the imagination that springs to life from his canvas. His wealth of imagery and allegory flow from the richness of his life experience: from a childhood in Chinese-occupied Tibet, coming of age as a refugee in India, an apprenticeship in Nepal, and his love of the Australian outback. Karma Phuntsok’s work is internationally acclaimed, and his paintings hang in private and public collections and galleries on nearly every continent. To see some of Karma’s work, click here.