Tibetan human rights activist, Buddhist priest and former prisoner of the Chinese government, Venerable Palden Gyatso, touched people around the world with his story.
Among them is local artist Marsha Gilliam.
Gyatso, who was imprisoned for 33 years, smuggled out some of the torture instruments used on him in the prison. Later, he became an activist and traveled the world displaying and talking about them.
After Gilliam met the aging but spirited monk in Phoenix in 2006, she was stirred to create a painting to honor him.
“My work on this painting was largely intermittent, but I felt a strong need to finish it toward the end of last year,” she said. “Little did I know then that Palden Gyatso would die three weeks later, on Nov. 30, 2018, one month shy of age 87.”
Gilliam, a former Mesa resident, has since completed her oil painting on board, titled “Palden Gyatso, Glorious Ocean,” sized at 28” x 39” unframed. It’s startlingly lifelike and depicts the monk dressed in a brownish red robe standing against a backdrop of Mount Kailash.
Gilliam wants to sell the painting to someone who would understand and appreciate it, and pledges to donate the proceeds towards an organization working to free Tibet. To that end, she would like interested parties to contact her with ideas.
Gilliam vividly remembers her meeting with Gyatso on May 1, 2006.
“He touched my life in the first moment I met him on that first day in May. He didn’t speak English, but he didn’t need a translator. His unassuming gentle manner juxtaposed with his inner strength to make a powerful emanation that filled the room,” she said. “I went off later by myself and cried because it was so overwhelming an experience.”
Gilliam has followed Tibet since then.
She said “with all the other horrors going on the world, I’m afraid little Tibet’s plight will become forever lost in perceived importance with the other situations.”
Gilliam has also read Gyatso’s book, “The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk,” also known as “Fire Under the Snow,” for which The Dalai Lama wrote a forward. In it, Gyatso details some raw images of the torture he endured at the hands of the Chinese.
In prison, he existed on one cup of barley soup a day, while being whipped, beaten and tied upside down from time to time.
“Some of it is really difficult reading. It makes you wonder how humans can do such things to other humans, and even more, how it is possible to come out the other side and still live such a productive life in the face of going through all that,” she said.
Tibet was an independent country from 1913, but a Community Chinese invasion in 1950 led to years of turmoil. The resistance led to a massacre of Tibetans in its capital, Lhasa, and the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India for his safety.
In Dharamsala, north India, the Dalai Lama established a government in exile. For his peaceful efforts, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
Gyatso was arrested for protesting during the Chinese invasion and spent 33 years in prisons and labor camps. Following his release in 1992, he, too, fled to Dharamsala, and later became a political activist.
For Gilliam, painting him is a way to publicize what he went through.
She paints in the classic style of the Old Masters, using the finest archival methods and materials, “because painters have an obligation to patrons and history to create durable works of art that will stand the test of time.”
She was taught the process and principles of classical realism under Italian maestro Frank Covino for 12 years until his passing in 2016.
In Mesa, Gilliam attended Mesa Junior High and Mesa High and was one of the Rabbettes under Marjorie Entz, the school spirit squad.
For this painting, Gilliam took pains to research and understand Buddhist thought and incorporated symbolism to honor the thousands who make the pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash, the Buddhist “source of life.” The trail around it is at an altitude of 18,400 feet.
She chose to paint Mt. Kailash’s north face, more accessible from Lhasa. She surrounded the monk with Buddhist symbols that are placed along the mountain’s base trail — prayer flags and carved stones invoking love and compassion.
“Palden Gyatso was a man of such high principle, especially regarding getting his country back and standing up for everything he believed in” she said. “It’s astounding to me, how he maintained his determination and strength in the face of such unbearable misery and for such a long period of time.
“Few people in this world could, or would, do this. For this, it’s an important way to show respect.”