December 17, 2008 / 1:21 PM / in 9 years

Endangered Tibetan art form blossoms in Italy

<p>A giant thangka, a sacred painting on cloth, is displayed on a hill at the Taer Temple during the Great Prayer Festival in Huangzhong county, Qinghai province July 9, 2008.Stringer</p>

MILAN (Reuters Life!) - She left for Dharamsala, India, as an economic and community development volunteer and emerged nearly nine years later as master of a rare Tibetan art form, the fabric Thangka.

Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo painstakingly transforms horse hair, fine silk thread, colorful Indian silk fabrics and luscious brocades into traditional depictions of Tibetan Buddhas. A single work takes four months to a year-and-a-half to complete.

Four of her traditional Buddhas and two Tibetan-inspired modern textile pieces are on display in Milan until December 19 at the show "Silk Mosaics: Sacred Images and Techniques from Tibetan Tradition." Showings can be arranged through January 4.

Rinchen-Wongmo is also the subject of "Creating Buddhas," a documentary released this fall that will be shown January 18 at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, Calif., which hosted a large exhibition of her work in 2002.

"I never decided to do this," she said at the Centro Mindfulness Project in Milan, where her work is on display. "When I saw it, it just took me."

She first saw a crafts center producing fabric Thangkas while touring Dharamsala as part of an economic development team. The intricate, richly colored Buddha tapestries are used in ritual spaces like altars and temples but are so rare that even many Tibetans have never seen one.

Through persistence and luck, perhaps fate, she was allowed to train with a Tibetan master, perfecting delicate stitches amid swarming flies drawn by the raw meat juice smeared on the silk to stiffen it. She now uses a cellulose and acrylic mixture.

She spent a year just learning to embroider eyes.

Sixteen years after that first encounter, Rinchen-Wongmo, 48, is now one of a handful of women fabric Thangka masters and one of the few masters outside Asia. Married to an Italian, the California-born artist lives in Milan and Los Angeles.

She begins by making a drawing in traditional proportions to prepare a template for her bits of cloth. She gives contour to fabric shapes by appliqueing round threads made from three strands of horsehair wrapped in fine silken thread. She sews the shapes together and finishes with a brocade frame.

Rinchen-Wongmo, who uses a Tibetan name meaning "precious, empowered woman," works on commission so rarely assembles her far-flung Thangkas into a show. Eleven appear on her website, www.silkthangka.com. For exhibition details, visit "Exhibition in Milan" on her blog: stitchingbuddha.wordpress.com.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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