On the Radar

Lessons for a lifetime: With Jacqueline Shiu

Jacqueline Shiu lessons | Where My Heart Leads

Humility – it affects your drawing. You can tell his (the teacher’s) Buddha is very humble. Every line, there’s no flick of a line, everything is just so very down to earth. So, I think maybe in terms of Thangka painting, if you are able to have that kind of mindset, it would affect it would make your drawings more heart …

Jacqueline Shiu

It’s not about the paper. It’s about the attitude.

Jacqueline Shiu
  1. What’s in a Thangka painter
  2. Respectfulness – do you understand?
  3. Paintings and the philosophy within
  4. A career, also a lifetime practice
  5. A step at a time

Karen Tsui, Where My Heart Leads

Why do you do art? 

Jacqueline Shiu: So I’ve always liked drawing and painting, even as a kid. And I think a lot of it is because my sisters were closer in age. So I had to play by myself. I was good at drawing, so I got a lot of encouragement from friends and teachers and parents with my drawing. 

Really early on, I remember my drawings were quite surreal. I mean, I like to put different things together and join them in like a weird, weird way. 

When I was 12 years old, dad and I went to England. We went to the National Gallery, and I saw this huge painting – it’s very realistic. It’s the Beheading of Lady Jane Grey. But it was so dramatic. And I was so blown away, because the textures was just so realistic. And it’s the texture, and of course the composition and the subject matter as well. I think at that point, I started noticing oil painting – as in the power of a painting.

I didn’t think too deep into the power of the painting, but definitely I was like, “Oh my god, oil paint can do this!?” So I thought, “Maybe I want to do oil painting. 

Thinking back, my approach to art has always been very scientific and logical – meaning there’s always a cause, a therefore; because of this, therefore, it should be this. That’s kind of how I thought.

So I think while it’s my personality, I suppose it’s reflected in the artwork that everything’s a little ordered, and maybe even stiff. 

For the purpose of making a shawl, this pattern actually turned out very nicely because of the hard lines. But I think as a painting is not my favourite. 

So even in university, I was always trying to understand “What is art?” And it’s obviously very subjective point of view. I’ve always been inclined to think that there should be a kind of painstaking process involved in art making. 

Jacqueline painting a mural in Hong Kong. c2021.

I like intricacy and pattern, because I think it’s the the labor of hard work that makes it more valuable to me. Back in university, despite being in LA, where everything’s conceptual, I’ve always found value in aesthetics. If there is such a thing, right, because it’s so subjective. I think there is.

So what I do now is kind of a combination between this very structured, controlled, logical way of thinking, combined with aesthetics and beauty. 

For university, I was actually going to be a biology major, because, as a Buddhist myself, I’ve always thought, “What’s the defining line between science and consciousness?” So I kind of thought, maybe biology would bring me closer to those answers.

So what happened?

I think when you have a lecture of a few hundred people, then it became just memorising Greek words.

So I lost interest. And I took up art instead. There was a lot of conceptual things going on in LA. It was hard to grasp in the beginning, because it also has to do with maturity, right? And sometimes, if you’re just concerned with finishing up your homework so you can go play, you don’t really digest what you’re learning.

Nonetheless, I did absorb some of the Californian culture in art making.

Which is?

Which is, not so much about aesthetics. It’s conceptual. It’s a different vibe. Not my vibe. I think it’s definitely very innovative. Perfect for like product design or creating new things.

Where do you kind of draw the line between, design versus art?

So going back to the California thing. It’s very innovative for novelty design product, for new things. But actually, what I’m trying to express is a more traditional value. So I think that’s the biggest difference between California and me. 

So when I first started this venture (An eponymous line of products), it stemmed from having taken some Thangka classes in Nepal. It was my Sifu’s (Sifu is what one calls their master teacher when you’re an apprentice of sorts) wish that I take some classes with this guy and see what happens. So I did. This was was it maybe 2013? Or earlier? I think earlier. 

I went to Nepal and stayed in Sharminub, which is the monastery that he is building. It was a short stay. More like an introduction to Thangka painting, and I stayed there for three weeks only.

1. What’s in a Thangka Painter

I’ve come to learn a little more about Thangka painting as a religious form with another teacher. He is basically the lineage holder of our Karma Kagyu sect. Like everything that has to do with art, visual things, statues, you have to go through him.

To give you an example, last time he came to Hong Kong, he was trying to teach us how to repair statues. 

He had collected a bunch of statues from other disciples that needed preparing. At the Buddhist centre, we were unwrapping all these statues in bubble wrap. And then he said, “You know, there’s no need to waste the bubble wrap. So just, flatten it, keep it aside, we can use it later.”

And you know, the tape was really old and it was hard to peel off. And also the statues have been kind of broken for a long time and in storage for a long time.  Not broken, but just in storage. So some parts were moulding and some of the paint chipped. So I was ripping off the bubble wrap, and it was one bubble wrap where I ripped a little harder because the tape wasn’t coming off. And then he yelled at me. 

At first it seems like – Why are you yelling me at me for ripping the bubble wrap? But then he explained – it’s about putting the same care, putting your care wholeheartedly into anything that you do. So you know, of course I felt bad. And that’s the kind of teaching I get from him. And that’s the representation of what it means to be a Thangka painter. 

Teacher Norbula repairing a statue.

2. Respectfulness – do you understand?

On another occasion, I went to visit him in Sikkim. It was a short trip. He taught me for a week. That whole week, we were just drawing the Buddha head in proportion. And, he said, “Don’t waste paper, just use these scrap paper. So I had to use both front and back…”

What was going on in your head?

I suppose as an artist in the Western world, I feel like, “Oh, everyone has tons of sketchbooks. You would just sketch page after page after page.” But for a Norbula, who grew up in Sikkim, and learnt to do Thangka the proper way, way back when they didn’t have paper or pencil. So everything is very precious to him. 

So on this sheet of paper, I had drafted the head a little too high. And there wasn’t space for the hair above the head. But I thought, you know, that part is the easy part to draw. So I’ll just leave it out. So I went to draw the entire face, and I showed Norbula. And I had a real scolding from him. Because he said I was being so disrespectful to him as a teacher, and to the Buddha for submitting a drawing that’s incomplete.

Because you can’t show work in progress?

You can ask him, “Hey, you know, I have trouble. What do you think?” That’s okay. But to submit something and say I’m done, and it’s not perfect. Meaning, you’ve not put your fullest…

You were aware of the the potential of more work in it.

Yeah. So I got scolded real bad. But rightly so. It’s this kind of teaching that we lack in the Western society, which is (the training the heart) teaching.

What did you observe when he was in Hong Kong and you were all working on repairing the statues?

The general theme is the same. Like, when you do something, you do it wholeheartedly, and you do it respectfully. And you do the best that you can. I mean, technique wise, I’m fine. But the part that I’m lacking is the humility and the patience.

It’s a continuous process right?

Yeah.

What does it mean by humility?

Humility – it affects your drawing. So when we were doing the Buddha heads in Sikkim, I drew some Buddha heads and I thought, Oh, you know, basically, you’re drawing the Buddha and your heart and your mind. So I drew a face that looked like this. And when I was drawing the eye, I thought, Okay, this line should be like this. Because in my mind, the Buddha is pretty cool. Like pretty awesome. Like he’s an awesome kind of dude in my mind.

But then when I looked at his Buddha (the teacher’s Buddha), you can tell his Buddha is very humble. Every line, there’s no flick of a line, everything is just so very down to earth. So, I think maybe in terms of Thangka painting, if you are able to have that kind of mindset, it would affect your drawings … 

As in like, every work that you make is in a way the product and a reflection of the artist.

Yeah. Even if it’s just a line.

So I’m learning a lot from him in the short weeks that I spent with him.

Jacqueline In front of the painting entitled Mother.

3. Paintings and the philosophy within

What is Thangka painting?

I don’t know enough about Thangka to say what it means. I have a vague idea of what the Mandela means.

So what is Thangka? What is mandala?

Thangka is basically paintings, Buddhist paintings.

And Mandala is specifically the kind that is centred.  So if you take the Mandala as an example, it represents the Universe. And the Universe has four directions. And in these four directions, there are different things. With my artwork, in a similar way, I try to represent the concepts, the idea, with geometric shapes and directions and lines and shapes. Be it spirals or repeated patterns. 

Can you give us an example?

So let’s take this, this “Mother” painting as an example.

The title of this painting is “Mother.” I’ve been taking psychology classes, and my psychology teacher mentioned that, “A Mandala is the representation of the womb, or the universe, these kinds of concepts.” And then through the psychology classes as well, we learned to be connected to our own mothers, in a sense that we come from her body, the beginning of our existence, we were in her body for X amount of time, and how she’s passed on all the nutrients, etc to us. 

I was just imagining, as a fetus in her belly, what was it like? So it’s like a tribute to mothers. There are a lot of spirals and braids and entanglement in my paintings because as a general Buddhist theme, everything is interconnected, right? 

And the spiral is, when I did it, I was thinking of the quality of the belly button, the belly button. But also how, in this universe, there’s like a tunnel that doesn’t end. 

The recurring theme is, everything is very interconnected. So I guess what I paint represent Buddhist ideas of interconnectedness, and how there’s no beginning or ending of time – those kinds of things. I don’t want to just paint three paintings and talk about big themes. 

I’m using a lot of these topics. It’s just really for dialogue, and it’s my way of sharing these ideas that I value. Someone might find it interesting, seeing things from this angle. So that’s why I’m doing all of these paintings based on these Buddhist philosophy.

4. A career, and also a practice for a lifetime

You mentioned through your art, you wanted to achieve something

For myself or for other people?

In general.

I’m quite lucky to be able to do this, because it satisfies many things in my life. So obviously, one is, I like making something beautiful. So I get the satisfaction of, “AH I love this, this is so beautiful!” doing it.

And then I also get to express my, well, they’re not my thoughts, they are Buddhist philosophy. But I find it meaningful that these ideas can be shared among people who are not Buddhists or religious. So I find meaning in that. And lastly, I have yet to to learn the proper Thangka painting, but it’s also for my own practice, my own Buddhist practice. 

I mean, I see this as a lifetime thing to do, a lifetime practice. I mean, parts of it as a career, but parts of it as a practice. It’s quite beneficial for me as well. 

How do you keep that connection or awareness of that practice?

These small examples about bubble wrap. I think I’ll remember it forever. 

The reason why you remember it for the rest of your life is because it’s true. And you agree with what, what’s wrong with yourself, and then someone gave you a solution. So you’re like, “Oh, my God, that’s really helpful.” So there’s no way I’ll forget that.

When he told you like, Oh, you better use like both sides of the paper…

I think there was also a little bit like, it’s just paper. Pretty spoilt. They only cost you know a cent. But it’s the attitude, right? It’s not about the paper. It’s about the attitude.

Can you tell us about mineral paints?

So my Sifu (one’s Master teacher) first told me to go to Nepal and study under this Yellow Sect Painter. As an introduction, I could stay at the monastery. But then, before my Sifu passed away in 2014 – I didn’t learn about this until after he passed away – he had asked Norbula, the guy who lives in Sikkim to teach me and this is actually a huge honour.

He said, “You don’t really need to teach her how to draw or paint, teach her about the mineral paints.” Because I guess it’s uncommon to use mineral paints. We’re all very devoted to this Sifu. So basically, everything he says is a must do. So, I mean, Norbula, he doesn’t know me, I don’t know him. But because he honoured Shamarpa’s words, he would go out of his way to teach me.

How was the instruction?

So it’s an apprenticeship. Because he has to fulfil his commissions, he would have people, his students, helping him. Basically, people would learn through helping him fulfil his commissions.

What was the studio or set up like?

When I went to Sikkim, there was one man who was directly learning Thangka from him, and helping him colour his Thangkas. And there was Anukar was from Finland – she’s helping him do other projects, not the Thangka, but depending on what’s on call, I suppose. 

And then Norbula’s daughter also helps him. I learned that he has several projects around the world, painting monastery walls, murals. So what he does is when he gets to a place, he would host a class. And then he would get to know people who might be interested in helping him for the local projects. Over the years, I think he’s collected many students from like Poland or Russia or France. So sometimes they would fly to different destinations to work on a project together.

What’s mineral paints?

So mineral paint. So I when I was in Sikkim, I saw Karma, who was the man who was learning from Norbula. He’s like 28. So he was painting some clouds, and you know, it was like a tiny brush. You’ve always heard about Thangka – it’s so laborious, you have to paint dot by dot by dot, right? 

The reason is because basically mineral paint is you grind it up to a powder form. It’s supposed to be so fine, like baby powder. You then mix it with the the glue. But the thing is the mineral doesn’t actually dissolve, it’s just so fine that it becomes a paste. So when you put it on the paper, the glue is supposed to hold the powder on the paper. But it’s not technically dissolved. So if you spread it out, it’s like you’re trying to paint with sand.

 So if you want to get a painting to be perfectly even like a printout, the only way to do it is to do the pixels. That’s why they do it dot by dot.  

Karma was telling me, “Yeah, this cloud takes one week, and this one takes another week.” Because if you do one layer, the colour is not solid enough. So you have to do another layer. So that’s the reason why Thangkas take so long. At least the proper ones. But I mean, these days, a lot of people use acrylic and that’s a lot faster.

So when you go study again, how does it work?

The first time I met Norbula was in Gaia, India. During the Monlam Prayer Festival, like a week of praying, pilgrimage. This is like 2015/16. 

Jacqueline attending the Monlam Prayer Festival.

There was a beggar on the street asking him for money. And he just slapped him on the head and was like, “Why aren’t you at school?” You know, he’s the type of like, the grumpy old man who gets to do anything he wants, like that kind of guy.

But he’s actually the kindest person because when he says something, or does something, he has your best interests at heart. I feel a bit bad. I mean, he’s been urging me to go see him because he’s 82 years old. So he’s like, I want to do this before I die.

You obviously can execute and do very contemporary paintings from your private commissions on very different subject matter. Do you still do that?

My training is an oil painting. I studied in England and then the US. So it’s all Western art and oil painting based. I also studied in Beijing for two years. So it’s more realistic Russian approach to oil painting. 

You studied in Beijing? 

Yeah. Oil.

First time around, whatever. I didn’t learn much. But second time around. I had a really good time because it was just a collection of random people in class. There was like 12 or 13 of us.

And we had like 44 year olds, watercolour teachers from Guangzhou Academy of Art. We had a 22 year old who just graduated from university. A half-French, half-Chinese girl who doesn’t know what she’s doing. So it was really good mix of people.

We got along, we chatted, discussed art, and everyone shared the passion. It wasn’t like, Oh, I just had to graduate.

We were all there to learn painting. So I got a lot of appreciation for oil painting, which I didn’t get before.

In Beijing with her painting classmates

It’s just talking to friends, you know, they would be “Oh, look at this artist, look at his book, do you see this part? You know, this means, it’s very thinly painted.” We would talk about stuff like, “Oh, look at this colour. So cool, how he’s done it. Look at the brushstroke. That’s just so nonchalant.”

Like stuff like that. So that was a good learning experience about art – about oil painting, like the execution. 

Your previous training was more on the concept?

Well, definitely in LA, it was more concept. That’s why I went to Beijing. Because I felt like, I finished my studies, but I don’t know how to paint. So I went to Beijing, just to learn how to paint.

5. A step at a time

What’s on the horizon? 

Going forward, I intend to do a solo exhibition, which I haven’t done before. Because previous ones have been group shows. Because before, I was just so busy dealing with teaching and setting up this business. My personal development of paintings and design is the short stick now. So got to do a little more until everything’s on par with each other. I think that’s how I feel at least. 

I think I’ll do more spiritual stuff, because it’s what I want to develop further. 

And that would include like murals?

Well, I have to do one mural in the future, but it is already in the in the works.

It’s at the monastery at Sharminub in Nepal. So before my Sifu passed away, he had asked me to paint a painting. He didn’t specifically say mural, but basically, “You have to paint a painting in the lecture hall.” He told me what the painting has to be.

He’s passed away, but, I just need to complete it before his reincarnation comes back.

What was his brief, so to speak?

It’s based on a passage, I think it’s a poem.

So in the Buddhism practice, they have different bhumis. Bhumi is like level. So when you become a Bodhisattva, meaning you’ve gained some kind of realisation, then you’re the first bhumi Bodhisattva. And they’ve categorised it into 10 different levels of realisation. And it’s classified that from the seventh bhumi to the eighth bhumi. Beyond the eighth bhumi your realisation would be spontaneous. 

So the passage describes the stage from the seventh bhumi to the eighth bhumi. It’s described as a swan that’s flying into the horizon, leaving land flying into the horizon, and he turns his back, turns his head back. And his beak is moving, he’s saying something to kind of instruct the other swans who are still on land – “You know, this is how you do it.”

So that’s the image I have to create. 

What’s your dream? 

Well, I think I’m just happy when people can read the meaning behind these paintings and be like, “Oh, that’s cool. Kinda agree with that. So that’s pretty nice.”

Jacqueline’s first solo exhibition in 2020.
A guided meditation and singing bowl experience opened the Exhibition.

Postscript on Jacqueline’s first branching into product derived from her art –

The shawl idea came because of the Khata offering. It’s a Tibetan custom. It’s like a respectful gesture. I want to do a silk shawl, and maybe cushion covers and other stuff. Like Home Accessories. Yeah. But I’m the only person working on it. So it’s gonna take time.

All images are from Jacqueline Shiu unless otherwise noted.
Date of interview: 20 January, 2019 at Jacqueline Shiu’s studio.

Read: