From age three, Tinley was meticulously trained, first by his father who was head of the Artist Guild of Lhasa, and later in a special school of the arts. Spending the school months studying and the rest of the year traveling with his father, the young artist became accomplished in all aspects of his tradition, including thangka painting, murals, and architectural decorative arts - learning “on the job” at the the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple, the Norbulingka, Ramoche, and Sera, Ganden, and Samye Monasteries, along with countless other private and public commissions.
As a young man, Tinley became a monk at Nechung Monastery, Seat of the State Oracle of Tibet. Here he was appointed the resident artist, dividing his time between practice, study and painting at this ancient institution which holds a unique place in the history of the Tibetan people and culture. After 6 years as a monk, Tinley returned to lay-life, painting extensively throughout Tibet. However, the trajectory of a promising artistic career was crushed in 1959, when the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet by the Chinese evolved into a program of systematic destruction that identified the artist class as enemies of the people. Tinley spent many of the next 20 years on forced labor “assignments,” suffering tragic personal loss of family, friends, and property similar to that of most of the Tibetan nation.
After 1979, the political situation changed somewhat and the occupying authorities put Tinley (who was now one of a few qualified artists left in the country) in charge of the restoration of the Jokhang where statues were broken, paintings obliterated and wood rotten from exposure to rain and snow. Later he joined similar efforts at the Potala, Ganden, Drepung and Sera Monasteries and then at Nechung, where cows and sheep were in the courtyard and the destitute homeless were sleeping on the broken floors. For one and a half years, Tinley acted as lead artist in restoring and repainting the monastery of his youth, drawing upon his memories to recreate much of what is seen by the visitor to Tibet today and would otherwise be lost forever. Most of this work was only unofficially sanctioned and was undertaken at great personal risk by the artists and by local people who spontaneously arrived to offer brushes, paints, food, and unskilled labor.
At last able to leave Tibet in the early 1980s, Tinley was quickly embraced by the exiled monastic community as a rare, authentic Tibetan artistic master and traditional lineage holder. He became artist-in-charge of multiple sites in Nepal and India, working directly under assignment by both His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and His Holiness the 16th Karmapa. Tinley was eventually appointed by His Eminence Jomgon Kontrol Rinpoche as master artist for the new Rumtek Shedra (Monastic College) in Sikkim, India, where he oversaw and trained a crew of half a dozen monk/artists assigned to implement his designs.
Finally, in 1988 when the western seat of His Holiness the Galwang Karmapa was being built in Woodstock, New York, His Eminence sent Tinley to the U.S. to design and paint the new temple building and shrine room. Over the next several decades until the end of his life, Tinley continued to paint from his home at the apex of Meads Mountain in Woodstock where he lived with his beloved wife Wangchen Pema and their dog and bird, creating many original thangkas (sacred paintings), designing and painting U.S. Buddhist shrines and Dharma centers, creating personal shrines and meditation rooms, and training the occasional western student along with formal apprentices sent to him from India and Nepal.
During all these years while living at KTD, Tinley also served as the ever-present, ever-vigilant, and ever-playful official shrine keeper of His Holiness Karmapa’s monastery, welcoming all who arrived at the KTD temple door. Few who entered that shrine room could have realized that the dazzling visual display opening before them had flowed through an unbroken 350-year old family lineage from the central valleys of Tibet to arrive in the West from the mind and brushes of Tinley Chojor.
Extracted from Opening the Eye of the Buddha: the Life and Work of Tinley Chojor by Louise Light with Photographs by Claire Pullinger, forthcoming in 2012. © Louise Light, Claire Pullinger & the Estate of Tinley Chojor.
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