Leslie is an extraordinary artist whose artistic practice helps to preserve a rare artistic tradition and pass it on to others. She makes pieced-silk Buddhist thankgas, a Tibetan art form that dates back to the 15th century and is now practiced by a handful of Tibetan artists in exile in India. The images she creates are not painted but instead built up by sewing together pieces of silk like a cloth mosaic. The process is painstaking but also meditative.
First she draws the figure, following the exact proportions of the deities as described in sacred Buddhist texts, to ensure the deity’s spiritual power is preserved. Then she forms individual design elements by creating three-dimensional outlines out of horsehair wrapped in silk thread. She then cuts out and stitches together these bordered elements. She adds many embroidered details along the way, the most important of which are the eyes of the deity, since it is through them that its spirit is transmitted. Finally, the image is framed in brocade and attached to a cotton cloth on the back for hanging. It takes months to create a single image, and the results are spectacular, bursting with color and sheen from the silk. Her work is so breathtakingly unique that a filmmaker made a documentary of her several years ago (see www.threadsofawakening.com).
I first met Leslie in 2002 when I was working at Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and planning a Buddhist art exhibition. In conjunction with the large exhibition, we decided to feature Leslie’s work in a smaller gallery, so we borrowed about ten of her pieces from her collection and from some private collections. The exhibition was stunning, and highly educational, as Leslie is not only precise and patient as an artist but she has these qualities as an educator too. I learned a tremendous amount from her about the practice of Buddhist art, at an important time when I was trying to deepen my knowledge of this area of Asian art. In recent years, Leslie has used her skills to share the art form with others, and in a highly unconventional way, teaching students all over the world this ancient art form using such modern tools as pdf files, web cams and teleconferencing via Skype. I met some of her students when they were visiting her for a thangka-making retreat, and they glowed with the same warmth as their radiant teacher.
Over the years, I have enjoyed a precious friendship with Leslie, from a distance when she was living in Italy with her husband and recently when she moved back to California after they decided to separate. The move was a painful one for Leslie but she has built a new world and community for herself in her Southern California home and I manage to see her slightly more often than I did when she was in Italy. Even though she has lived through a number of trying times in recent years, she has handled them with tremendous wisdom and compassion, as befits a student of the dharma. She works hard stitching Buddhas and other deities, teaching her students and running art programs for her community. She may sometimes feel sad about certain turns her life has taken. As a good Buddhist, she allows herself time to feel this sadness, and then lets it go, spending time with warm, creative people like herself and even holding laughter workshops to lift her spirits and those of the other participants. On those rare days I get to enjoy her company, I savor her loving, deep-thinking and honest being and look to her for inspiration for my own attitude to life. Today I spent a delightful couple of hours with her and two other creative women in the very special, mystical town of Ojai, and gave her the book, Women in Buddhism:Images of the Feminine in the Mahayana Tradition by Diana Y. Paul, which I have been planning to give her for a while. To me, Leslie, whose artist name in Tibetan means “precious strong woman” personifies the very best of what it means to be a Buddhist woman.