The Seattle Tibet Fest’s art exhibition this year, From Hemlock to Douglas Fir: A Migration Story of Tibetan Lumberjacks was a two-part show: the first part was a photo exhibition of Don Messerschmidt’s photographs that documented the first group of Tibetans who came to the United States as migrant workers in 1967-1969.
The second part of the show was a solo exhibition by a young Tibetan-American artist, Tenzing Lhamo Dorjee who illustrated a series of works based on the interviews.
This arts initiative at the Seattle Tibet Fest, supported by the Tibetan Association of Washington was a short weekend residency that we hope to continue each year. Using art as a tool to diversify access points to our own histories helps us accelerate the process of building bridges between the generational and cultural gaps within our own community.
This conversation with Dorjee highlights her Tibetan and American upbringing and the complexity of that identity. While there are a few tear-jerker moments, she has a seemingly effortless way to pepper it up in humor and wit.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work as an illustrator?
I am Tenzing Lhamo Dorjee, I was born and raised here in the Pacific Northwest region to two very loving but kind-of-overbearing parents who just want their little daughter to grow up and be a big kid and do a lot of good stuff through her art. My work comes from my childhood submerged in Western American pop- culture and my Tibetan heritage. It is very humorous, honest and expressive. I’m trying to learn to combine all that I love and discover ways I can combine it with my knowledge of Tibetan culture and history.
How did you get interested in drawing? Were you always creative as a kid?
I’ve always liked drawing. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up- but I always had a pen and paper. So working with these basic tools is so natural to me. I remember once my Ama came to me and she had a huge stack of printer paper. She was like, “do something with this!” And I would make these huge maps of fantasy worlds and scrolls and connect all the papers. Then the internet came along and I started to get exposed to more online artists who were making these really cool digital art and animations and it really inspired me. At first, it made me feel like maybe I couldn’t be an artist if I didn’t have these fancy tools. But it never computed with me to work with so much digital media, because it didn’t feel authentic to me. I was so used to working with more traditional media. I love digital work and I can totally appreciate it, but it’s not the way I work.
What made you decide to take drawing more seriously and pursue it in college?
It was in my junior year in high school where I got to take an AP art class. I had never taken an art class before that. My art teacher, Mr. Donahue is an artist himself- he made these super cool 90s grunge sculptures. He encouraged me and believed in what I was doing- and that really mattered to me. Hmmm…. am I getting very emotional thinking about a really cool guy that appreciated me and happy about the career that I have taken? Yeah! If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in Seattle right now.
I also remember you mentioned a Tibetan teacher from Sunday School who was very encouraging.
I can’t speak Tibetan fluently, but I’ve always been very interested in other aspects of Tibetan culture, like performing on stage, calligraphy and such. There was a man who was very close to my family and our Tibetan community in Portland, Oregon. He was our Tibetan Language teacher for the North West Tibetan Cultural Association (NWTCA). I had a lot of respect for him. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago, I went to visit him in his home while he was ill in bed and he told me that “as long as you keep loving your culture, you are still Tibetan.” Not being able to speak Tibetan as well as others, had set a lot of barriers up for me. It’s harder for me to speak to Tibetan elders without being judged or hearing comments about not speaking Tibetan. I attended Sunday school for a long time! I stopped going till my Sophomore year in High School. I think the only reason why I stayed for so long was because I just wanted to dance and hang out with my Tibetan friends.
What kind of projects have been most challenging for you?
I’ve really struggled finding a project to do for my senior BFA in art school. I knew I wanted to make it Tibetan but I didn’t know what the final concept was going to be. I bounced through a lot of ideas: a children’s book, interviewing Tibetan youth through a social media campaign, a graphic novel about my parents… I had a lot of anxiety in my second semester of my senior year. A lot of my classmates had started working on their projects and I was still researching ideas. I was so worried I wouldn’t have anything to present at the end of the year. That’s when I realized, I came up with these ideas because these were things I wished I HAD growing up. Tibetan representation that didn’t come from a boring history book or a documentary. It was also around this time I joined a Facebook Page called Subtle Bhoepha Traits where Tibetans from all over share Tibetan themed memes.
How would you introduce Illustration to someone who doesn’t know much about it?
Art asks questions and Design solves the question or tries to answer them. There is something about trying to articulate more. It depends on what kind of illustration, but the overarching theme from my point of view is that whoever your audience is, should get it immediately. That communication must be effective or it’s not doing what it’s supposed to.
I am curious about how this experience on working with a very research-based project on the Tibetan Lumberjacks been for you?
I’ve only learned recently about these Lumberjacks. So I felt like hitting my past self because I didn’t even know my own Agu-la and many other Tibetan men in my community were one of those 27 migrants. It is like an out of body experience. I’ve been so used to learning about historical, pre-1959 Tibet. So researching this has been so interesting. It feels like I’m a mash up of an anthropologist, historian, and an archeologist.
You mentioned the exhibition of the migration series by Jacob Lawrence and how that made you cry. How does that work inform the way you’re approaching this project?
I was in a rut trying to figure out what to do now that I had all of this amazing research. When suddenly I remembered the time I went to the Seattle Art Museum where Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series were finally together for the first time. I didn’t know much of him, all I heard was that this would have been the first time all 60 of his paintings were together. When I entered the space, there was an Asian woman reading a poem about her mother and their immigration to America. Listening to her words as I was looking at the paintings, it really struck a chord with me. I realized that this was what was going to motivate me to make a project. I watched a video on Youtube later on the Philip’s Collection made back in 1993 about Lawrence and the Migration series. The one thing that resonated with me was when he said “I was far removed from the culture I knew, yet I was very close to it through my mother and through her friends. There is a paradox, be close and yet far away.” These were the words that put exactly how I was feeling at the time. I had spent years going to Bhoekhang, performed countless Tibetan songs and dances on stage: a fabrication of what my Tibetan parents and elders created of what Tibet is. For which I’m blessed but saddened by. There are many immigrant kids out there who grew up in an environment where they didn’t have their culture alongside them. I’m very grateful for my Popo-las and Momo-las who have been the last generation to know what Tibet really looked like and felt. So I feel like it’s my job with this project to take these thoughts and memories and turn it into something tangible. If Jacob Lawrence could? Why can’t I?
Any new discoveries you’d made during your research?
That my Agu-la and all of my elders were pretty cool people? And that learning history is something that takes time to uncover. Tibetans, not just the kids; but parents and elders should have some sort of sit down together and share these untold tales to each other. So we can build bridges between generations before they are lost.
ABOUT THE ARTIST: Tenzing Lhamo Dorjee is an illustrator, designer and a cartoonist based in Seattle, Washington. She is a Tibetan-American woman born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and graduated with a BFA in Design at Cornish College of the Arts in May 2019. In July 2019, she was part of The New Wave, a group exhibition of Tibetan contemporary artists, curated by Yakpo Collective in New York. You can find more of her work on Twitter and Instagram @tldorjee