A Gift For More Than One VillageBy Darlene Deacon
June 5, 2010
Tibetan prayer flags lined the unpaved path to an aqua-blue house hidden among the trees. A statue of Buddha rested upon a towering shrine of glimmering stones and metals. The breeze propelled the Tibetan prayer wheel surrounded by a garden of vibrant flowers. A postcard image of the mountains glowing beneath the sun grew beautifully in the distance. This is not South Asia. I am in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia.
Jane Vance - an adjunct professor of the Creative Process through the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech, an aide for special needs children at Blacksburg Middle School and an established painter of South Asian styles - resides in the unique, aqua-blue house in Blacksburg, Va. As I pulled up the rocky path leading to Vance's home, I left Virginia and crossed into an unimaginable world in a different place in time.
Vance embraced me with open arms, "Hi honey. It's so good to see you again." The living room consisted of one couch, no television, a side table with a lamp resting on top and dozens upon dozens of paintings bigger than a king-size mattress lining the walls. There was no need for the lamp; the colors that radiated from the paintings illuminated the room.
Vance, 51, remembers painting as early as age 2, using a maple tree as her canvas. "I came into the world being a painter," Vance said. She may not have been painting South Asian shrines, relics, rituals and traditions, but she admits to having been intrigued with the culture from an early age.
Deacon: How long has South Asia's styles influenced your artwork?
Vance: When I was four, I would get encyclopedias off the shelf to look for this one little picture - the Taj Mahal. I remember thinking as I looked at the picture that even buildings can look like flowers. Even then, I was militant about the idea that this building was curvy and gorgeous and looked like nature."
Deacon: How did you become so intrigued with Tibetan culture in particular?
Vance: I've often said that for me Tibetan Buddhism was like in the "Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy opens the door and the world is color; that's where my door of transition awaited. It was as if I had been in a dark cube, feeling the edge of the wall. I found the door knob and there it was, Tibetan Buddhism. That was the world in full color for me. That culture is my home.
Vance has been traveling to South Asia since 1985. Her first encounter with the Tibetan culture was during her first trip to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Those Tibetans who managed to escape the Chinese occupation carry on Tibetan culture and traditions in Nepal. As soon as Vance saw the shrines, monasteries and art, and observed their body language and their laughter, she became interested. She began to educate herself about India, Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism while visiting the Kathmandu Valley and while at home in Virginia.
In 1995, Vance met Dr. Tsampa Ngawang. Tsampa is an amchi - a traditional doctor who uses herbs, mud and prayer in complex combinations to heal people - in the Mustang district of north-central Nepal. "This is one of the oldest medical traditions in the world and he's one of the last great practitioners of his kind," Vance said. Not only that, he is also an artist, mind-healer, physician and veterinarian, public health expert, settler of village disputes, village chairman and farmer.
Since their first meeting in 1995, Vance and Tsampa have had a growing friendship. During one of her many visits to Nepal, Vance remembers standing at the tip of the Annapurna Mountains with Tsampa and best friend, Jenna Swann, looking into the distance when Tsampa told her: "You see in that direction is America, and you see behind me, that's Tibet. Behind me is my whole past, but my dreams tell me that I may be born in America the next time. Will you help me learn this place? Not just the institutions, but the rocks, the rivers and the trees. Because I need a head start if I'm going to do good work there." Tsampa felt a future connection to America and with that came the invitation to visit Blacksburg, Va.
In 2001, Tsampa traveled to America for the first time. He lived with Vance for 6 months and taught at Virginia Tech for a semester. He taught a course on Himalayan culture; the class entailed learning about the foundation of ideas, such as wisdom and compassion, in Buddhism and why Buddhism is more a technology of mind rather than a religion. Unlike many South Asians who settle in America and send money home to their families, Tsampa returned to Nepal after the semester. "In Tsampa's world, the moment you accomplish real wisdom and compassion you need to be sure to have that where it's most needed," said Vance. "He knows that's with his people."
In Tibetan culture, doing a painting is less spontaneous and more historical. A lineage painting is done of an individual who has become a historical example of contribution, skills and wisdom, and is of remarkable use to his people; it is a narrative. Vance proposed to do a lineage painting of Tsampa and he agreed.
"I knew that I was in treacherous territory because if you respect another culture's tradition you don't just bash your way into it," Vance said. Even though she had received the permission from Tsampa to do his lineage painting, Vance was still worried that it could still be potentially disrespectful; she wanted to be granted permission by one more influential Tibetan.
Vance wrote a personal letter to His Holiness the Dalai Lama explaining her intentions of Tsampa's lineage painting and asking for his approval. The Dalai Lama gave her his blessing and with that, Vance began working on her painting, Amchi, in 2002.
Vance is the first westerner and the first female in history to be granted permission to do a lineage painting of a prominent Tibetan amchi.
In the painting, Vance shows Tsampa's accomplishments, tells his biography and narrates his first trip to America. She incorporated flowers of the Blue Ridge Mountains, irises, tulips, Virginia blue-bells and other American flowers to flourish among him. The painting took ten months to complete. However, it was not until June of 2007 that Vance and her team was able to fundraise enough money to deliver the painting to its home in Nepal. The team flew 13,000 miles to the other side of the world with the painting rolled up in a PVC tube. Once in Kathmandu, Vance had to have a tailor sew the linen painting onto brocade silk. "Until it receives its silk frame, the painting is considered incomplete," Vance said. After the painting had received its final touch, the team took 2 more short flights to get farther west. In order to be polite and show respect, they endured a 155-mile walk to the King of western Nepal to announce their gift. "He gets news in that old way, by word of mouth," Vance explained. "That was an astonishing adventure, to know that we were walking to deliver a piece of news. It was like stepping out of time." He graciously accepted and the celebration began.
On June 28, 2007, Tsampa's village, Jomsom, held a festival for the unveiling of the gift. The village cooked for days to feed a thousand people. As the painting was unveiled, the people chanted, and threw rice and flower petals for the long life of the painting. Tsampa's mother lit the first candle to bless the future of her son's painting. There were horseback races and archery competitions, and the village's first game of Twister. "All night, we danced in circles, passed the apple brandy and barley beer and we all became family," Vance said. But before the festivities began, Tsampa led a ceremony that would link his village in the remote west of Nepal to Vance's village in southwest Virginia forever.
Just four months before, on April 16, Virginia Tech experienced a massacre in which 32 students and faculty members were killed. Tsampa had taught at Virginia Tech and felt that the first order of business was to hold an echo candle-light vigil. "This incredible lama is a Hokie," Vance proclaimed. The ceremony was held in Tsampa's private monastery, and Vance and her team were asked to light the candles as the 32 names were read. Tsampa's son accompanied Swann in the reading of the names, ending the ceremony with, "And all the wounded, frightened, heartbroken and heroic, and all the Hokies all over this small beautiful world. From the mighty Himalayas to the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, we will always remember with you our brothers and sisters and friends. Namaste."
"It was so important to me to honor the people lost, but also to honor this strong bridge that now exists between two very unlikely places," Vance said.
"Jane and I realized that between us we could tell an amazing story with a video," said Swann, videographer of the film. Vance and her two co-producers, Swann and Tom Landon, have been diligently working to put together the film "A Gift for the Village" of their journey to deliver the gift. The past three years have been filled with the time-consuming process of editing, launching a website and a blog to promote the film, setting premiere dates, and finding a nationally known narrator. Lisa Mullins, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and senior producer of WGBH Radio's "The World," which is heard daily around the country, agreed to narrate the film.
"A Gift for the Village" will make its world premiere in Kathmandu in late June. Vance plans to not only show the film in Nepal's capital, but to show it in the remote villages in the west of Nepal as well. "We hope to sew together four giant bed sheets as our screen, take a generator on a pony's back and show this film outside on the backs of thousand-year-old monasteries," Vance said.
The Dalai Lama's office has requested a copy of the film and will be one of the first half-dozen people in South Asia to view it.
The first premiere of "A Gift for the Village" in America will be on September 23 at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Va. On October 9, it will premiere at The Lyric in Blacksburg, Va. "The Lyric serves as an important community gathering place and Jane's story should be very relevant to the citizens of Blacksburg," said Susan Mattingly, Executive Director of Blacksburg's Lyric Theatre. "Jane's work reflects her roots in this community, our mountains and flowers and our tragedies."
Vance dedicated "A Gift for the Village" to the Dalai Lama and the people of Nepal, and it is in memory of a friend, Cindy Goad, and to her former student Morgan Harrington.
Over the last 15 years, Vance and Tsampa have connected two communities on opposite sides of the world. "We are the same people, we just happen to be on each side of the bridge," said Vance.
Former Student of Jane Vance at Virginia Tech