The Stupa exhibition is opening soon!
Sometimes an image or form has a long incubation in the mind and imagination. So it has been with my obsessive curiosity about the stupa since 1969. I took an undergraduate course on India art, and no other historical artifact gripped me like the Great Stupa at Sanchi. In the late 70s and early 80s, I made a series of drawings inspired by the Great Stupa. In the mid-1980s distinguished Islamic scholar Oleg Grabar told my cohort of Harvard University graduate students that all of us should learn about at least ten monuments of world cultures, and not get stuck in narrow art historical backwaters. The Sanchi stupa was one of the monuments I chose to study in depth. In 1993, I visited the stupa at Sarnath, in India, where the Buddha taught his first sermon. Then, in 2012 during my work as a hospice volunteer, I had the privilege of being with a 100-year-old man as he died. We gazed wordlessly at each other until his eyes lost focus and his breathing stopped. A day later in my drawing studio, I mused about how to give form to this profound experience. Suddenly, without forethought, I was making images of Sanchi with eyes and words on the paper.
These studies are inspired by several actual stupas, including the Great Stupa at Sanchi, the Swayambunanath Stupa in Nepal, and the Stupa of Yeshe Tsogyal at Tidro, Tibet. A fourth structure comes from thangka representations of the Stupa of Ushnishavijaya. My work does not attempt literal depiction of these sites or thangka images, but rather, aesthetic transmutation of their forms. The stupa exists in most cultures of Asia and has migrated around the world with the migration of Buddhism more generally. Essentially, the stupa is a reliquary, not unlike medieval vessels for a saint’s relics, for it often holds the ashes and remains of a holy figure. In ancient Tibet—a land of altitude and bitter cold, snow and wind—stupas were sometimes constructed in the landscape in order to quell natural forces. To me the stupa is thus an image evoking death, memorial, and veneration of nature’s power.