Capturing the change in colours

Chhimi Dema

As a little schoolboy, Pema Gyeltshen, 37, from Trashigang, had little interest in studies. He loved doodling and did that a lot. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to be when he grew up. In fact, he never thought about it.

But then his favourite past time was sure to take him somewhere. Today, he is a contemporary artist based in Thimphu, a successful freelancer. His work has been exhibited in several Asian countries.

Artists are quirks. They dig deep into the native yearnings of the humans and can see far into the future. Where it not for artists, how would anyone understand the beauty of colours and ideas?

Development and modernisation have so much to give to the society. They also take away as much from the things that make us a community. Changes come. Pema Gyeltshen’s art and representations centre on the need to tell a development story.

Look at Thimphu, for example. Change has overtaken the city. Nothing pretty much is left of the old Thimphu. What this city has lost and gained, in the many years since Bhutan opened her door to the world beyond is a characteristic theme of Pema Gyeltshen’s work.

“Modernisation is replacing the old houses, from mud-based to concrete-based. Painting these old structures would be a good reference in the future,” says the forward-looking artist. “I am doing quite well.”

He has exhibited his work in Nepal, Malaysia, China and India, among others.

The journey as a freelance artist, however, was not easy.

Pema had no goal or dream after he graduated from Yangchenphu Higher Secondary School. “I wanted to be free.” Seven years he lost to drinking and drugs.

He was once a mechanic and became a land surveyor. Not long after, he became a broker. Finally, in 2012, he decided to become a fulltime artist. “I have never looked back since. Art is a tool to express oneself and communicate with people.”

Contemporary art is new in the country. “But, now, young people are interested in contemporary art. They ask me how to improve their skills. Reflecting on that, I am positive that contemporary art will grow and flourish.”

Bridges, ruins, old houses, stupas, prayer flags, doors and dancers are objects that arrest his mind. How he can render them in watercolours and acrylics is mesmerising.

Consistency is the key, he says. “I make sure that I paint at least an hour every day.”

The challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic is that there aren’t foreign buyers, he says. Another challenge is not being able to ship his artworks to other countries. “I will keep creating, however. I am positive that I will be able to sell my work someday.”

For Pema, the pandemic has given him more time to be creative with his work. “It is a blessing to be able to do what you like for life.”

Art is therapeutic. It is food for body, mind and soul.

Pema encourages budding artists to be passionate about art, learn the basics, and keep practising every day. “I will continue my journey. I don’t know where it will take me.”

Pema swears to continue to head out to capture time in his art. If you come across a man with long dark hair painting the streets of Thimphu, that man could very well be Pema Gyeltshen.

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