When Art Becomes A Social Medium

This article appeared in the inaugural edition of the “Drukpa” magazine.

Tashi Phuntsho Jr. of Drukpa looks at art and the individual through VAST.

The attic would not rate as a conventional place for imparting fine art, with an undersized studio and an even smaller administrative room. Enter the studio and you are taken to a different sphere with canvas and paintings, each with a story of its own. Fresh droplets of paint on the floor suggest that an artist has just been busy. Walk around the room and you soon get engulfed by the expanse of color. You can’t help but stare at the vastness of imaginations expressed.

This is the Voluntary Artists Studio of Thimphu (VAST), a popular haunt for artists and young art enthusiasts.

The Beginning

It was in the 1990s that Kama Wangdi (popularly known as Asha Kama), an artist then in his mid-thirties with the civil service, envisioned a platform where Bhutanese youth could express themselves through art.

With the lack of school curriculum on art, he felt a pressing need for someone to take the initiative. According to Asha Kama, the time was ripe to begin such a venture and harness the potential of artists to keep art not only alive but vibrant. The next generation would naturally be better equipped. This was the rationale behind VAST.

Asha Kama was not a bright academic in his school days but, with a sketchbook in front of him, he was at ease and peace, drawing delightful patterns.

“I was lucky to have teachers who encouraged me to concentrate more on my painting and drawing skills. They knew I was not the smartest guy in the class but sure did see some sort of potential in me,” Asha Karma recalls. “They believed in wholesome education.”

Asha sees himself as one of the lucky ones who could stress more on his artistry.
After failing the class eight common examinations, he dropped out of Yangchenphug school to pursue his love of the arts fulltime.

With strong recommendation letters from his teachers, he waited at government office doorsteps with a hope of pursuing higher studies in art. On every occasion, his lack of academic qualification let him down. Giving up on his hopes of finding an art school abroad, he finally decided to enroll at the National Fine Art Centre, Thimphu, where he spent several years as an apprentice studying traditional art.

Having chosen to pursue arts, the beginning of the road was the roughest with critics ever present at every twist and turn.

“Everyone had something negative to say about it. My father, a farmer, saw a different picture though. He told me it was a good profession where one could sit and paint and not have to endure the hard work in the fields,” he laughs.

In the end, determination and passion proved stronger than criticism and discouragement. A true artist was born.

By 1976 he had joined the government service as a full fledged artist. During the latter period of his service, he says he used to ‘bunk’ office on Wednesdays and Thursdays just to be able to teach young kids in school. After much deliberation and persuasion about the positives of letting the kids spend time with paint and brush, some teachers allowed their students the time though there were others who thought it would be time ill-spent. However, rejections never did deter Asha’s enthusiasm and, in time, the teachers saw the productiveness of his intent.

He carried this trend for a few years until his own protégées were capable enough to guide the kids. A generation was already holding the torch he helped light.

In these years of volunteerism, he realized that he had to do more to be able to reach out to more people. It was time to gather the like-minded, strengthen resources and start out stronger as a team.

“For many people, their generosity and wisest actions come out in selfless talk and brooding over situations while hanging out in fancy restaurants livened up by songs coming out of a stereo,” Asha said. “But this was not the case for us, four like-minded artists, who met in a bar with a clear focus on keeping Bhutanese art alive. It was there that our vision led to the foundation of VAST, the closest thing we have to a modern art school in Bhutan,” he said, recalling the night the idea of VAST was conceived.

Voluntary Artists Studio of Thimphu

VAST started as a weekend project with the main theme of working together and letting artwork speak for itself. As VAST formally came into existence in April 1998, 90 students turned up for the interview with their art portfolios for weekend classes. All 90 students were enrolled, not because they were great artists but solely on the merit of their interest.

An American friend of Asha donated US $ 200 acknowledging his vision. This amount became VAST’s foundation fund.

For almost a year, they used the Clock Tower, Changlimithang ground and friends’ office space for the classes. Finally, they rented a small space as their studio. VAST met their rental woes by organizing fund raising private parties and screening movies for friends. As the fund raising task became difficult, Asha gave up his own studio and moved into the VAST studio paying 50% of the rent. “This turned out to be a good move as we then had to raise only 50% of the rent,” he remembers.

Acknowledging their contributions towards youth empowerment, the Youth Development Fund in 2003 granted institutional support which now covers the rent.

Asha Kama stresses that VAST is not for a person who wants to get rich through art. It is a place that aids in honing and polishing artistic skill. Apart from focusing on promoting art, VAST also undertakes voluntary work for humanitarian causes. Monetary issues have always been secondary.

“When we started, we promised ourselves that we would not let monetary issues stop us in our endeavors. We haven’t dropped any project out of money issues till now. We have a hard time but we somehow manage,” he said.

He says that promoting and pursuing art in Bhutan is a struggle for him. “It is a happy struggle though,” he chuckles.

“Asha is one of the few who believes in doing a noble thing. He helps us by finding us jobs and letting us earn and improve our skills at the same time,” Kinga Wangchuk, an artist with VAST, said.

VAST links the artists to potential buyers for their art work. Thirty percent from the sale is kept as fund for VAST’s activities.

The Present

Even after 11 years of existence, VAST still is not financially stable. It, however, has plans to achieve the dream of establishing a platform for art enthusiasts nationwide. Its biggest hurdle now is to achieve Civil Society Organisation (CSO) status.

“For our survival and growth, having a CSO status is the ultimate goal for recognition,” says Asha Kama.

VAST now has three full time employees who manage and look after daily functioning apart from concentrating on personal artistic pursuit.

“The government has been very accommodating and supportive of our endeavors. We always got something like a pat on the back,” says Asha Kama.

Asha cites that being able to grow as artists and to have become more responsible citizens rates as the highest achievement of VAST. Such modesty comes naturally from the art director responsible for Bhutan’s award winning pavilion at the Hannover World Expo in 2000.

For the moment, Asha Kama is busy working on the proposal for VAST’s CSO status registration which he says is almost ready.

Asha Kama is now 51 but still, at heart, he retains a childlike love for youth, art and all that is beautiful in life.

Fact Box

  • Asha Kama has served the government as a traditional artist and graphic designer for 20 years until his resignation in 1996
  • In 1991, he received a scholarship to do a BA Honors in Communication media at Kent Institute of Art & Design, majoring in art direction and exhibition design
  • VAST participated in the 1999 group exhibition Art in Nature in the Netherlands
  • VAST set up the National Exhibition of Antiques and Cultural Treasures in 1993
  • VAST set up the 50th  UN Anniversary Photo exhibition in 1996
  • VAST initiated the redesigning of the Clock Tower Square in Thimphu
  • VAST organizes outdoor camping for carrying out various club activities with young students
  • Apart from teaching art to young enthusiasts, VAST also has some socially inclined projects:The rice project,Make a wish project,Build a House project

To date, more than 1000 students have been given basic training in art
There are 12 senior volunteers guiding the 60 active student members for the year

As a result of VAST endeavors, many artists are pursuing their career as successful freelance artists with various organizations around the country.

Founding members:

  1. Kama Wangdi
  2. Rajesh Gurung
  3. Phurba Thinley

7 thoughts on “When Art Becomes A Social Medium”

  1. Thanks to DRUKPA Magazine

    from where do you buy this magazine?, i’m looking for it.

    proud of being a member of VAST.

    but we should have PRIDE without ARROGANCE, no matter what we do, where we work.

    have a wonderful weekend folks!

    Aku

  2. I am very proud of being VAST too and very very proud of VAST for all the achievements! Three cheers for VAST!!! and thanks to Drukpa for doing the article.

  3. For all VAST and its members have stood for, is always worth the mention. The magazine can be bought from most book shops and popular joints. eg. Megah Enterprise, Dejong enterprise etc.

  4. Bonjour, Hello, I’m from Belgium, Europe. What a great job you do! It make me feel happy, when I see what you do for young people and for Art! I’m art teacher and I beleive it’ s very important for children to express themselves through paintings.
    Sorry for my poor english…
    Go on and take care!

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