Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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School Days

Everywhere you go, you'll find that we're all more similar than different.

Meeting these students at the Thangka Painting Academy in Shangri-la was a reminder that their experiences are taking them on the uncertain path I once chose.

Tangka painting school Zhongdian (Shangri-la), China

They're not that different from my art classmates on the other side of the world, fifteen years ago:

The room is quiet enough to hear the scratching of pencils on paper and primed cloth. Gods and demons with rippling abs writhe beneath the fingers of artists in training. Some gods wear necklaces made of skulls.
Silence as we drew furiously for fifteen seconds, forty-five, a minute, five, then ten. Soft vine charcoal and thick graphite on newsprint. Our models were nude, held plastic skulls, were draped in cheap polyester to imitate the silk folds of Renaissance masters.

The air holds faint residues of butter candles and incense, new wood and old fabrics.
We breathed turpentine fumes from brush-cleaning vats, asphaltum from the printmaking room, stale cigarettes from the smokers clustered outside on cold winter days.

Strains of prayers chanted by a novice monk filter through the wood next door, where the director, a Lama, receives prostrating visitors.
Professors' lectures echoed down our hallways. Celebrated critics came to speak and dole out catalogs; famous paintings were displayed and celebrated.

A low murmur of whispered voices, in Tibetan or Chinese dialects. Their art may make them rich or revered – or they may be forgotten. Many will do something else for their working life. Earbuds are worn discreetly: music transports them as they work on their Work.
We groaned in frustration or flirted with anticipation, worried about how to pay the rent. Slipped headphones over our ears to block out distractions and better connect with what we were trying to draw. Most of us will have chosen another career after graduation; few will continue to focus on art at the expense of a path better suited to paying a mortgage.


As I go on making art, seeing it, meeting artists and others who work in the global artworld, their preoccupations, and what we learned in school – the fundamentals of making art, theories and ideas and motivations – aren't enough for me. The lives of the people who make the materials I use are part of the art I make with it. The people who produce them have incredible stories of life and loss that reflect how quickly this part of the world is changing.

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