Nantucket artist, Lisa Sawlit, reveals her greatest masterpiece yet, a life-size portrait of the Dalai Lama. Later this fall, the Dalai Lama himself will be asked to bless the painting, which will then be offered at a private auction and could end up touring the world. Just before being shipped off the island, Lisa gave N Magazine an exclusive look at the painting and shared its story.
Although Lisa Sawlit had been working for the Dalai Lama for nearly a decade, she had never met the man. As artistic director of Wisdom Publications, Lisa designed and produced many of the Dalai Lama’s books. Now, in September 2003, at the Kurukulla Center in Medford, Massachusetts, she was finally to meet Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. “He came out to a porch overlooking this little garden to talk with us, and in front of him stood a table where all the books I had made for him were set— the many years of my labor in front of this most holy man,” Lisa remembers today, her eyes distant in the memory. “And he looked at me and said, ‘You have a good mind. Use it. Learn to concentrate.’”
A decade later, Lisa stands before a life-size portrait of the Dalai Lama in her Nantucket cottage. Titled simply “Tenzin Gyatso, The Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet,” the six-foot-by-four-foot oil painting dominates the space—not in size necessarily, but in subject matter. The Dalai Lama stands perfectly in the center of the canvas, his face cast in the same beatific look as when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, or most recently when he was presented the Templeton Prize, of which he donated the $1.7 million award to charities, mainly to India’s Save the Children fund. His hands are lightly folded over lush robes, golden yellow in hue, the color he wears when teaching his message of “loving kindness.” In the distance over his right shoulder is Potala Palace in Tibet, the winter home where he once resided before being forced into exile by the Chinese in 1959. Mount Everest peaks out of the mist over his other shoulder, while two Tibetan snow leopards flank his sides. Finally, an outpouring of lotus flowers, Tibetan symbols of enlightenment, lines the bottom of the canvas. “The whole painting has been composed as a fantasy landscape; it’s not a geographical reality,” Lisa explains. “It follows the psychic landscape of how we think and dream of the world and the places we’ve lived and belonged to.” In this case, the dream belongs to the Dalai Lama: to be home again.
Lisa Sawlit made her home on Nantucket four years ago, after summering on the island since the early eighties. Splitting time between here and Boston, where she has a studio and teaches at Montserrat College of Art, Lisa opted to paint the portrait on Nantucket as the island afforded her tranquility and complete focus. In fact, the island even made its way into the painting. “The color of the skyline is a dead match to the north sky on an April day on Nantucket,” Lisa indicates.
Picking up the brush at the age of eleven and eventually earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in fine arts from Tufts University, Lisa possesses incomparable skill as a classically trained painter. Turn to page six of her 2008 book, Drawing the Cast, and she charts her pedagogical lineage as a master artist back through the ages to names like Titian, Raphael, and Leonardo. And just like Leonardo, Lisa has dabbled in more than just paint over her career. In addition to her tenure at Wisdom Publications, she’s studied philosophy, trained in ophthalmology, worked in philanthropy, and even tried her hand at finance, serving as creative director at Fidelity.com from 1997 to 2001. Yet it was ultimately her passion for painting that enabled Lisa to fulfill the Dalai Lama’s instruction: Learn to concentrate.
Technically speaking, the painting is a triumph. From the execution of the figure, to the drapery of the robes, to the anatomy of the cats, to the landscape, the architecture, the vegetation, all is rendered with exquisite precision. Achieving this required two years of research and sketching before even a single tube of paint was pushed onto her palette. She sourced over 350 images and composed the phantasmal scene virtually in Photoshop. This computer-generated sketch then became her cartoon to paint from. For someone as classically trained as Lisa, the use of Photoshop to create the image’s composition is noteworthy. “I get the feeling that Leonardo would have used Photoshop as a sketch tool if it were available during the Renaissance,” Lisa says, “as would have Raphael and Michelangelo.” She continues, “One can chronicle the studio practices of the old masters all the way up to William Bouguereau and discover that many of the finest painters in the world combined state of the art optical tools and empirical study to make their magnificent images.” The photos she painted from were carefully selected, from the images of the Dalai Lama, which were taken by photographer, Michel Henry, during a teaching His Holiness gave in France, to the lotus flowers, which were grown and photographed by lifelong botanist, Bahman Farzad. Lisa did have the benefit of primary sources such as the robes, which she used to dead match the color in Nantucket’s natural light.
Beyond her technical ability, Lisa’s familiarity with Tibetan Buddhist tradition allowed her to inundate the painting with allegory and symbolism. Take, for instance, the two snow leopards posed at either side of the Dalai Lama. One of the rarest protected species in the world, the Tibetan snow leopards are symbolic of the fragility of Tibet and the surrounding environment. Lisa poses them like the mythical snow lions of the Tibetan flag, protectors of the Buddha and Tibet.
After a year painting the piece, Lisa describes its completion as the “liquid mercury moment.” “When you pour out mercury from a thermometer and let it land on a table or a piece of glass, you can’t pick it up. It will escape your fingers,” she explains. “When you’re that close to having the highest level of absolute accuracy, color, value, hue, the touch of the paint, and there is nothing you can im- prove, you have met the limit of your skill and insight— you’ve struck liquid mercury! At that point the painting is done.” With that, Lisa put down her brush and stepped out on to her back porch. A light rain had just passed over the island, and a brilliant double rainbow emerged through the mist, soaring across Nantucket’s North sky. The painting was indeed complete.
On October 16th, the Dalai Lama will come face to face with Lisa’s painting at a private ceremony at the Kurukulla Center. She hopes the Dalai Lama will consecrate the painting in a Buddhist ritual known as rab-nay, thus elevating the work to what some might deem the “sacred relic of a saint.” From there, it will go into a private auction, of which all the proceeds will be donated to the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, a nonprofit dedicated to publishing, promoting and preserving the teachings of Tibetan Buddhist masters, including the Dalai Lama.
While high-end art dealers and auction house directors hesitate to even speculate a starting bid, the painting is likely to sell in the hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million. “Shelly Farmer of Hirschl Adler in New York City compared the painting’s auction potential to Jackie Onassis’ pearls,” Lisa notes. “She pointed out that the pearls are worth something on their own, but it’s the story surrounding the pearls that made them take off at auction.” While Lisa hopes her painting donation will fetch a handsome sum for the sake of the Archive, this is only part of what moves her. She speaks about the work reverently, as if His Holiness were sitting there in the room with us. “I knew I would relinquish this picture to the world because I knew what it was,” Lisa says. “It’s going to go in whatever auspicious direction it takes, allowing other people to become part of its narrative. I may never see it again.” Though the painting may travel to distant lands, Lisa will always remember where its narrative began: here on Nantucket.