Connected \\ March 6, 2023
Thangka, Travel and Transformation with Tsherin Sherpa and Robert Beer: PEMcast 29
In Episode 29 of the PEMcast, we delve into the hearts and minds of two artists, separated by geography and time, but inextricably linked in their curiosity, their exploration of Tibetan Buddhist spirituality and a traditional art form. We discover what each learned about themselves and their own cultures by traveling to the opposite side of the world. In Spirits: Tsherin Sherpa with Robert Beer, on view at PEM now, you can discover the vibrant colors and tight grid systems of traditional Tibetan art – and then deviate with Sherpa’s breathtaking modern twist that communicates a journey from East to West.
Spirits is on view at PEM through May 29. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Tsherin Sherpa speaks at opening day events. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
“The Spirit character was autobiographical in the beginning,” says Sherpa. “Also it was my journey, my experience as someone who happened to come from a different place who's trying to readjust in a different environment.”
Readjusting, reorienting, reinventing is just what this exhibition is all about. Or as Sherpa says, it’s a universal conversation about identity, travel, dislocation and regeneration. On a spiritual search, Robert Beer traveled to India and Nepal in the 1970s. He ended up becoming one of the greatest and most respected thangka painting masters. “What compelled me to draw this way? Love, I guess,” says Beer. “It seemed the most meaningful thing to be working on.”
Tsherin Sherpa and Robert Beer in the gallery during the exhibition opening. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Meanwhile Sherpa lets his compelling Spirits characters explore, play and be mischievous. One poses for a mugshot, another chews pink bubble gum. They wear polka-dotted or golden underpants. “Sherpa’s work is huge and colorful and full of brilliant resonances,” says Beer. “It's wonderful that he's creating this body of work which can open the door to a lot of locked secrets.”
Tsherin Sherpa, Tara Gaga, 2016. Gold leaf, acrylic, and ink on cotton. Private Collection of Nassib Abou-Khalil, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Robert Beer, Hand Gestures 2, c. 1987. Brush and ink on paper, Courtesy of the Artist.
Curators Lan Morgan and Siddhartha Shah at the exhibition opening. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
The episode also includes thoughts from the exhibition’s Organizing Curator Lan Morgan of PEM and Siddhartha Shah, PEM’s former Curator of South Asian Art who brought the exhibition here and now leads the Mead Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. We also chat with a Salem resident who is currently working in public health in Nepal. So, sit back and have a listen to compelling conversations with these artists, punctuated with music inspired by the region and the street sounds of Nepal.
Do you have a good story to share with us? We love collecting stories. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode of the PEMcast was produced by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. The PEMcast is generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund. Music for this episode by Happy Prescriptions, warmmusic1449, DubRaJah, Jack Adkins, CLOUDWARMER, Lobo Loco, Siddhartha Corsus, MATRIXXX, Kris Keypovsky, Toyinvention, Music by Azuma, Metre, Alex Figueira and Koi-discovery. Thanks to both of these artists for telling their stories. Thanks to PEM Assistant Curator Lan Morgan, and to Siddhartha Shah, who is now John Wieland 1958 Director of the Mead Art Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. Spirits: Tsherin Sherpa with Robert Beer is on view at PEM through May 29, 2023.
The exhibition was organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in partnership with the Peabody Essex Museum. The checklist of works in the exhibition was selected by Dr. John Henry Rice, E. Rhodes, and Leona B. Carpenter Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition at PEM is made possible by the generosity of Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch and The Lynch Foundation. Additional support was provided by individuals who support the Exhibition Innovation Fund: Jennifer and Andrew Borggaard, James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes, Kate and Ford O’Neil, and Henry and Callie Brauer. We also recognize the generosity of the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum. Media Partner: The Boston Globe. Follow the exhibition on social media using #SpiritsatPEM.
TOP IMAGE: Installing the Wish-Fulfilling Tree, 2016. Copper repoussé mandala, found objects, and rubble. A collaboration with Rajen Shah and team, Kathmandu, Nepal. Courtesy of The Rubin Museum of Art, New York. Spirits: Tsherin Sherpa with Robert Beer exhibition at the PEM. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Thangka, Travel and Transformation with Tsherin Sherpa and Robert Beer: PEMcast 29
Dinah: In 1998, a young man made a move from Nepal to Northern California. With him, he brought knowledge of Tibetan Thangka painting, with its rigid rules, its demands for precision and perfection. These traditional painting techniques had been passed down to Tsherin Sherpa by his Tibetan-born father. Now living in the West, he never forgot the stories his grandmother told him. Of spiritual beings who watch over Tibet and its people. Sherpa wondered what it would be like if these spirits had migrated with him.
Tsherin Sherpa: The Spirit character was autobiographical in the beginning. Also it was my journey, my experience as someone who happened to come from a different place who's trying to readjust in a different environment.
Dinah: How would these spirits adapt to new environments? What would they retain of their past? And what would transform into something new?
Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I’m your host, Dinah Cardin.
Dinah: “Who am I?” Questions of identity are more than ever at the heart of our conversations, films, streaming TV shows and contemporary art. We are all complex beings, composed of many experiences and influences. The various cultures, environments and traditions that shape us can seem like they are in conflict with each other. Self-discovery can be a challenging process, particularly for individuals who have experienced a move from one culture to another. In the first major Himalayan project at our museum in three decades, Tsherin Sherpa’s work and that of traditional thangka painter Robert Beer are on view in our galleries through May 29, 2023. More on Robert Beer in a minute. Sherpa grew up with the traditional artwork all around him. So pervasive, it had become invisible. He made attempts to almost run away from what was becoming mass produced art for tourists. But then, he went into the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and saw a large thangka painting, prominently on view.
TS: [laughs] I was expecting something very different. You walk in and you see a giant traditional thangka and I was like, "Wow, did I pay $10 just to come and see this?" [laughs] Later on, after analyzing it, walking around the museum, the galleries, the store, seeing the catalogs, seeing the labels, seeing how it is put up in the galleries with utmost respect. That I had never seen in Nepal. First of all, there was no museums. Secondly, many of the thangkas were only available in the stores. They used to call them thanka factories.
Dinah: In 2009, Sherpa began to stretch the boundaries of tradition in new and innovative directions. He imagined the guardian protectors of his ancestral homeland had joined him on his journey to the west. The first painting in this series features a deity covered in tiny images of Tibetans dispersed across the globe. Though this experience of diaspora is very personal, it’s also universal.
TS: A conversation about identity, a conversation about travel, readjustment, dislocation, and regeneration. Visually it may appear very different, but it's another way of expressing the same issues that we all deal with actually.
Dinah: Adjusting to his new home, Sherpa could not escape a flood of strange and often funny messages.
TS: I did a painting which was titled Modern Prayer Flag. It has a blue person-like spirit in the front and then all the writings on the back are in English but made to look like Tibetan script. These are all the marketing slogans that I heard on the radio or on television, so it's like, "Buy one, get one free," "All you can eat," "Lose 50 pounds in 20 days". [laughs] That dichotomy in our society, what we see is that there is a consumerism society, but at the same time, they're also trying to sell pills so that you lose your weight, [laughs]. This was something that I felt very humorous, having come from a place like Nepal and trying to readjust myself in this new kind of environment. Anything that I saw fascinating, I would just add them onto my work.
Dinah: Sherpa took his love and understanding of the deities normally drawn in tight grid systems and gave them the freedom to be mischievous.
TS: When I first started my spirit character, I wanted to have the God-like face, which I borrowed from one of the protected deities. It's because many times in the West when you say you're a Tibetan or you're from Nepal, you're almost looked upon like a holy being.
Dinah: In these truly compelling works is the joyful and bold palette often found in Himalayan art – the vibrant pinks and blues and the gold leaf. Look closely and you will also see bright butterflies and colorful snakes. But also surprising nods to the pop culture icons of the West. Figures like Lady Gaga, almost elevated to a deity herself, as well as references to Andy Warhol. This mode of creative expression, balancing humor and seriousness, religious and secular, reflects Sherpa’s experience of living between cultures. One Spirit poses for a mugshot, another chews pink bubble gum. They wear polka-dotted or golden underpants.
TS: Sometimes when I travel in different parts of the world, when I say I'm from Nepal or I'm a Tibetan, sometimes you're either viewed extremely as a holy person, someone enlightened, or extremely as a backward person who doesn't know how to function in this contemporary world. Nothing in between.
Dinah: During those early days in the US, when Sherpa was hired by the museum in San Francisco to demonstrate thangka painting, his own identity suddenly came into question.
TS: This lady comes to me and she starts crying. I was shocked… [laughs] She told me, "I feel so bad. We corrupted you. Now you're drinking Coca-Cola." [laughs] This kind of story projected onto us on a different level, which actually puts us in a very difficult position. At times, when I'm hanging out with my friends, they will say like, "Oh, he's a Buddhist. He doesn't eat meat." That projection sometimes makes you difficult to function as a normal being. That was the whole Shangri-La notion that I was trying to deal with. It freezes you because there are lots of expectations on you. I wanted to counter that through my works and that's how this spirit character was developed in the beginning.
Lan: Baby Spirit is a work that Tsherin Sherpa completed in 2010, pretty early after he had begun his Spirit series, and he was thinking about the way that the spirits might be changing in their new home. He imagined that they might procreate.
Dinah: Lan Morgan is Assistant Curator at PEM. As coordinating curator of this exhibition, she takes me to one of her favorite pieces, Baby Spirit 2. Incidentally on this day, she’s wearing very cool gold sneakers.
Lan: It's one for comfort, and two because it references the gold in the back of almost all of Tsherin Sherpa's works. He was sort of considering, what will their children go through? How would they relate to their parents' homeland? How would they relate to their cultures, as well? Personally, it's one of my favorite works, not only because it has these amazing chunky baby rolls, and I have a toddler, so I can attest to that the truth in this work, [laughs] The second reason that I really love this work is that, just on a personal level, I'm the daughter of an immigrant, and so I definitely understand what it's like to be navigating the culture you've been born into, navigating your parents' culture... I think that a lot of our visitors will similarly relate to these ideas.
Dinah: Lan’s mother came to the US in 1975 from Vietnam.
Lan: I've grown up in this in between place with an American father and an Asian mother. Even just by way of the fact that I look more Asian… I certainly can relate to this idea of what it feels like to come into spaces and feel a little bit different, not really knowing which side of your identity you relate to more strongly. It's very easy for people who are coming from multiple backgrounds, maybe negotiating a new place, or perhaps are of multiple ethnicities, it's easy to feel like those identities can be at odds with each other. I think one of the messages of this show is that, in embracing the multiplicity of our identities, embracing that we can find real power in embracing both sides of that.
Dinah: As the exhibition explores the journey of an artist from Nepal making his way in the US, it also explores a Westerner on a spiritual and artistic journey through the Himalayas. British artist Robert Beer is one of the tradition’s greatest and most respected thangka painting masters. His line drawings, on view sometimes opposite Sherpa’s works, reveal the forms, symbols and motifs from which Sherpa pulls inspiration.
Robert Beer: When I was quite young, with the death of my sister at the age of just turning four the night that she died, I had a very lucid dream or almost out-of-body-experience, where I was in the heavenly realms with her, flying around. She was not a child. She was a beautiful young woman, but I recognized her immediately as being a spirit. We were flying together through the heavens, basically, this wonderful, heavenly, blue sky. That experience was very profound. So that was at the age of 14. Then, in the early '60s, the psychedelics came along. I became obsessed with understanding the meaning of life from that point on. I was very inspired to go to India. I was probably around 17 at this time, 18. I left. I hitchhiked with my girlfriend from the UK across to India all the way. [6:30] I got stuck in Tehran with a cholera outbreak, and then ended up staying in India for five years and also one year in Katmandu, in Nepal. So, it was a journey to the east, essentially.
Lan: We are in the section of the exhibition which celebrates Robert Beer's work. Robert Beer's story provides a really interesting counterpoint to Tsherin Sherpa's story because he is a western man who is actually traveling to India and Nepal, where he becomes a master himself of traditional Tibetan art. Robert left for India and Nepal in his early twenties, after a period of what he described as a psychosis, where he really felt significant loss of identity. During his time in India and Nepal, he studied with the masters of Tibetan Tonka painting. Though he's sort of celebrated for the artwork that he's produced and for the writing that he's done on Tibetan iconography, he himself has stated that this is really a byproduct of his search for his spirituality and meaning for himself as well.
Dinah: In 1970 Robert Beer began studying under a Tibetan artist in exile, who was working for the Dala Lama.
RB:The refugees were coming out essentially at that point from Tibet still. They came into India and the only work they could do was rebuilding the roads that had been washed away by monsoons. Some of these were great meditation teachers, and a few of them were great artists also. I was more fascinated in the process of thangka painting, painting the deities, and learning through that rather than studying the teachings. I studied with Lhasa Jampa. I lived in the next room to him for about a year. I started to learn the basics of the grid structures of how the deities are drawn. He was a great example of dedication, because he was essentially the state artist of Tibet at that time, in exile, and was just working non-stop, creating endless thangka paintings. Two o'clock in the morning, I'd go out. I'd be working on a drawing and his light would still be on.
Dinah: In the gallery are works by Beer that offer a study of clouds in multiplicity or a series of mudras – or religious gestures – each embedded with a significant meaning.
Lan: He illustrates these in a really didactic way. He's really interested in preserving the meaning and the technique behind them and making them accessible for audiences across the world. When we compare him to Tsherin Sherpa, you'll start to be able to pick out those elements in Tsherin's work too. Tsherin just has a very different way of blending them to create a new creative expression.
Dinah: (tape) When you look at this, doesn't it look like it took hours and hours and is a very meditative process?
Lan: That's exactly right. Robert estimates that for each of these plates, he spent about 50 to 200 hours. When you look at these, they're very exacting, very meticulous. All of these symbols and motifs have to be painted to these proportions to have meaning. What's really fascinating about them is they look like they're just pen and ink, but they're actually all brushwork. They take an enormous amount of patience, skill, and also, as he says, breath retention to even complete these.
RB: Their measurements were very, very precise, and they had to be, in a sense, drawn in a certain way, very, very strict. The reason for this was that they were almost like archetypal images that you would self-identify with so that you would then, in a way, become connected to that image that you were visualizing and meditating upon. The history of all of this is very long, and very deep, and very hard to fathom, but once you begin to understand it, then your understanding develops on why these things are done in the way they are.
Hannah: Wow. That is skill that I don't have. I will say that doing this gives you a different appreciation for Robert's skills.
Kelsey: For any artist’s skills.
Dinah: You’re overhearing the final touches being added to the gallery just before the exhibition opens, including our exhibition planning team trying out an interactive station, where visitors are invited to try their own hand at drawing a variety of Tibetan Buddhist symbols and motifs using Robert Beer’s drawings as a guide.
Hannah: These are the wide open eyes of female bodhisattva….that has more of the arched brow. I feel like yours is more almond shaped. It's interesting how he shades the irises differently, and I wonder what that means. There's a lot of focus, meditation, and practice that has to go in to accomplish this.
Dinah: After watching Hannah and Kelsey struggle through, I’ll ask the question: Why would one put themselves through this painstaking process? Through all the hours it takes and rule following to create a single thangka painting?
RB: What compelled me to draw this way? [laughs] Love, I guess.
RB: It seemed the most meaningful thing to be working on. This whole spectrum of deities with the various attributes and weapons and peaceful and wrathful imagery, it was just a whole festival of images that were quite startling, really. The creation of a great thanka painting or a creation that’s painted perfectly, the practitioner who's working with that image becomes connected to it. It's to do with personal transformation, techniques of transformation, and it's very, very profound. It is a profound thing to delve into and find so much meaning and levels of meaning and levels of perfection on that journey into the inner worlds. Young people read comics, Marvel Comics of Superman and all of these stories. This was far more integrated and far more real because it was dealing with a culture and a way of life that was unknown, at that time, for most people in the West, really. I was fascinated by the mystery of it all. It’s not just pow pow, bam, bam. It’s wisdom and compassion. It takes you in. In a sense, it became my center of being, I guess, and I spent many years working at the drawing board.
Lan: The first work that we’re standing in front of here is called "Green Tara." This is a very complex composition that shows the bodhisattva of compassion, Tara. You can see that she is seated and her hands are gesturing open palmed downwards and then over near her heart, upwards. Her feet are also in these very distinct, open positions here. She's also surrounded by clouds and lotuses. You can see these conch shells at the bottom, which are auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism.
Dinah: We move on to a related piece by Tsherin Sherpa, where tradition meets modernity.
Lan: At first glance, Tsherin's work is so vibrant, it's energetic. We're looking at one right now that's called Tara Gaga that’s a conflation of the Tara deity, the bodhisattva of compassion with the pop icon Lady Gaga. Her arms are open wide and she’s taking the stance of Lady Gaga at the MTV Movie Awards from 2013, where she's wearing this fantastic shell bikini.
Dinah: (tape) High heeled shoes, shiny black high heels.
Lan: You can see the red painted right underneath them, too. The Louboutins. She's expressing this pose of great confidence, but at the same time, you can see there are all of these dark clouds here. She's casting off this darkness at the same time.
RB: Tsherin's work is fantastic. It's huge and colorful and full of brilliant kind of resonances that come through. There's a lot in there. It's wonderful that he's creating this body of work which can open the door to a lot of locked secrets that are hidden in the world of tantra. To make it a thing of great beauty in the way that he's doing is quite unique. My work is very precise, iconographically correct. Measurements are correct. Finger widths are correct. Everything is as it should be. Everything is as it should be in Tsherin's work, but it's also everything as it could be, in a sense. It's echoing on another resonance. It's a process of self-identification I think, largely.
TS: When I saw someone from the West who's taking this tradition forward, it's fantastic. I hope the audience will learn a little bit about our artistic tradition through Robert's work. And again, through my work, maybe they can see deviation. The traditional training of thangka painting is like the root of the tradition, the artistic tradition. What we are doing, me and many other contemporaries, are like the branches.
Dinah: Beer went on to produce essential reference books. He created an encyclopedia of the sacred symbols that was published in Boston in the 1990s. This book is used today by tattoo artists and graphic designers around the world. He recently met with a group of young tattoo artists in Nepal.
RB: We just happened to spend a few hours with them. One of them said to me, "Do you realize every tattoo artist in the world has your encyclopedia?" That touched me very, very deeply. That was one of the greatest hours in my life to be with these people and to feel that level of gratitude.
Dinah: In 2015, Sherpa visited Nepal just after a major earthquake. He went on to create a work to acknowledge those who were now displaced in their own land.
TS: We interviewed about 700 people who were living in tents at that time. We actually asked them, "What was your wish?" They told us, "I wish the government would give us some support so that we will go back and build our homes.” What I did was I took five-rupee banknotes, and then I asked them to write their wish on these banknotes. We documented this whole process. The idea is with this kind of experience, this kind of destruction, this kind of sadness, there's also something beautiful that comes out of it.
Dinah: Sherpa worked with a local artist to create what he calls a therapeutic work, a stupa where the wishes of his countrymen could be kept. Its symbolism is unmistakable: growth emerges out of destruction. A tree-shaped structure rises from debris.
TS: There's this Buddhist tradition where when some objects, like a statue or sculpture or something, when it is created, then it's consecrated with lots of prayers to make this object come alive. With that in mind, I collected all of these banknotes and then inserted inside these mandalas as their wishes.
Dinah: Later, when this wish-fulfilling tree started traveling to venues all over the world, more people were able to offer their wishes. We’ve found here at our museum that witnessing a grown adult pick up a pencil and a notecard and take a moment to write down their heart-felt wish can be a deeply moving experience.
Dinah: These wishes will be added to the piece as the exhibition goes on.
Lan: Everywhere that it's installed, Sherpa has stipulated that there be local rubble and found objects that are placed beneath the object.
Dinah: Indeed, just like the rubble from the earthquake once lined the ground around the wish-fulfilling tree, this rubble was collected here in Salem.
Lan: Here at PEM, we've collected rubble and objects from the Salem area that have significance to the culture of Salem, the history of Salem, and Salem's landscape. You'll see there are pottery shards, there are 18th century clay pipes, there are glass bottles, oyster forks, things like that. There's sand, rubbly bits, there are bricks that came from a 19th century foundry in Salem. Most of that was found in the Salem Harbor. It's also the site where, after the 1914 great Salem fire, which was a fire that really devastated the landscape of Salem and significantly changed its built environment from that period forward. After that fire, the rubble from it was dumped all in the harbor there. We also have a few objects from the Salem Witch Trials Memorial over on Charter Street. We have mementos that were left for the victims of the witch trials. It's a story that is told over and over again, often as a cautionary tale. It's something that had a devastating impact on the population of Salem and that we've since tried to rise above. The last piece of the rubble is rubble and sand that were collected from Salem's coastlines. This is, again, referencing the environmental impacts of climate change and the continuing coastal degradation that we're experiencing on really a yearly basis now.
TS: This should look OK.
Lan: This looks fantastic. You’re right. We needed that extra sand.
Dinah: As Sherpa grew more comfortable in his new home, so did his Spirits characters. As he became one of the most renowned Himalayan artists of our time, the Spirits began to take on more confident poses.
Lan: In the beginning, you really notice that a lot of the spirit figures were crouched. They might have looked a little bit confused. Those spirit figures were still negotiating their identity, as Tsherin was at the time. They took on more victorious poses as he began to build confidence in the multiple facets of his identity. By the end of the exhibition, the spirits come full circle.
Dinah: This coincided with the growing and changing attitudes of the diaspora that Sherpa has been a part of.
Tsherin: Over time, I noticed the immigrants from different parts of the Himalaya who are resettled here in the West, were becoming more and more grounded. They were more confident. It was like the next generation was emerging and then they felt at home. They were assimilated properly.
Lan: The spirits take on pretty dramatically different forms by the end of the show. You'll notice particularly in this last piece. We have 11 spirits that are unprecedented in their diversity. There are more female figures. Some of the spirits have taken on more human-like forms and facial features. They have dramatically different poses. They almost look theatrical or even like social media influencers here. Behind the spirits in the foreground, there are hundreds of small images of Himalayan people going about their daily life. We see mothers tending to children, we see animals, we see people cooking, selling things on the street. These are really the day to day Himalayan people that Tsherin is interested in representing through his work. When he reflects on this image, he has said this work is not about me, it's about us. There are 11 figures here. These troupes generally have 12 people in them. The idea is that you are potentially the last member of the troupe.
Dinah: In 2018, Sherpa and his partner moved back to Nepal.
Lan: His later works were painted after he had moved back. In some ways, his homeland was unfamiliar to him. He'd been living abroad for two decades, so he was reacquainting himself with the Nepalese people and seeing them anew in their complexity.
TS: Nepal had become something very different from what I had experienced 20 years ago before I left for the US. It's much more dynamic. I would say the younger generation who were educated abroad were coming back and trying to build Nepal in a different way. Art was also flourishing slowly. It felt like a vibrant energy. What I felt was this generation that I was interacting with, the younger generation, were much more fluid, much more confident. They could be anybody from anywhere.
Dinah: Indeed self discovery – as well as understanding others – often comes from leaving home, gaining experience in a new place, challenging our understanding of the world and ultimately, emerging from this perfect cultural tension with a deeper grasp of the various parts of ourselves.
Siddhartha: Like with so many things, I think that it has a personal connection.
Dinah: Siddhartha Shah is PEM’s former Curator of South Asian Art, who helped bring this exhibition to PEM and had the idea to pair it with the drawings of Robert Beer. Shah has known both artists for many years. He spoke on a panel with the artists and curators during the opening reception for the exhibition.
SS: I met Robert Beer in 2005. I met Tserhin Sherpa in 2006. Living in California. I think through biography the two felt very connected in some way. That period in my own life was one of kind of reinvention and reimagination. I think I was negotiating the parts of me that were traditional and Indian and connected to my ancestry and the parts of them that were mid-western, American, Queer, all these parts of who I am.
Dinah: Shah went to Nepal in 1998 to study abroad. The same year Sherpa moved to California.
Shah: I fell in love with it because it felt familiar. It was a little bit like India, but also so different and seeing India adjacent literally and figuratively made me appreciate my Indianness, as well as broader South Asia. This is a museum that is all about interaction and exchange. It’s not just easterners going west and being transformed. There are westerners who go elsewhere and are also being transformed. I think that to just reduce that to appropriation is not right. It’s a much more complicated conversation. My first professor of Sanskrit was a white Australian man. I learned about my culture from this person. And as Tsherin said earlier, there are many artists in Nepal who have looked at Robert’s work and have learned to appreciate their own tradition that way. That’s why I thought that for PEM it made sense. It’s not just about the other coming here. It’s about here going there as well.
Dinah: Hi. Kim?
Kimberly Waller: Hi, there. I'm sorry I had an embassy thing…and so we stayed a little bit longer. So thanks for being understanding and giving me a little more time.
Dinah: When we discovered that a longtime Salem resident is currently living in Nepal, we had to get in touch.
Kimberly: My name is Kimberly Waller. I oversee all of the health programs that the US government supports in Nepal. I work to support promoting better health, maternal, children, new borns. We do a lot of nutrition.
Dinah: Waller has spent her life working in public health around the world.
Kimberly: So Guatemala. I was in Ukraine for a few years, in Armenia, and then I also lived in India for a few years, and the number of other places, Indonesia. What I love about it is, no matter what age you are, you still can experience tremendous growth. It's humbling. You have to fumble and you have to get lost a bit. All of what you believe about the world, everything you take for granted, all of your assumptions that you didn't even know you had, you don't even know they're assumptions until all the sudden, it's done the opposite way wherever you are. I don't know, even simple things, which is really funny because when I go home, I get confused by simple things. Which faucet is the hot water and which is the cold water? It's different in every place I've lived. What side of the street do they drive on? So many things.
Dinah: Waller is there with her husband and her teenaged daughter who, despite missing her friends back here, is having an incredible experience of growth herself. From rides through the Himalayas on a small plane to living in Katmandu, Waller shared her experiences with me, experiences that all become a mish mash, shaping us into who we are.
Kimberly: It does affect your identity and it's constantly changing. I think, in terms of daily life. Everything is a hybrid integration, every aspect of every part of your life, from the foods you eat to how you dress to, I don't know, salutations, how you greet somebody, what you do, and then you adapt it. You're taking on that culture and holding onto some of your own rituals. I pretty much feel like everything you do turns into some adaptation, but it's a mix, it's all a mix of cultures.
Dinah: Waller and her family experience beauty and culture everywhere they look, from the street vendors with perfectly arranged fruit and Himalayan pink sea salt to colorful murals and music in the streets.
Kimberly: It’s sights and sounds and smells. It's really enthralling and totally unpredictable. You can never take the same ride in the streets twice, ever, ever, ever. It's amazing.
Dinah: She shared with me what it’s like to walk down her street.
[sounds in the street]
Kimberly: It's a narrow road, and there's different types of vendors. As someone sells vegetables and someone's roasting something, and they're selling off their bicycle. There's tailors and a beautiful, huge incredible tree that everything is built around. The traffic, it doesn't fit on the road. You're right in the middle of traffic because it's a tiny road and people are just moving along fast. It all works.
Dinah: The sounds you’ve been hearing were generously shared from recordings taken by Kim Waller in Nepal.
Dinah: Spirits: Tsherin Sherpa and Robert Beer is on view at PEM through May 29, 2023. Thank you to both of these artists for telling their stories. Do you have a good story to share with us? We love collecting stories. Write to us at email@example.com. Thank you to Organizing Curator John Henry Rice at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The beautifully illustrated hardcover exhibition catalog, published by the VMFA, is available in the PEM shop. Thank you also to PEM Assistant Curator Lan Morgan, and to Siddhartha Shah, who is now John Wieland 1958 Director of the Mead Art Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. This episode of the PEMcast was produced by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. The PEMcast is generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund.