In this post, my Swedish friend Miriam is going to share her story of when she visited the Snowland Art School in Gansu province.
I just got back from a week at Snowland Art School in Xiahe, Gansu province. This is a school that teaches a combination of traditional Tibetan art and Western art, to a group of more than ten Tibetan students. I ended up visiting the school during their “girl power week”, so I didn’t get a chance to meet any of the male students. But the story of this school and the girls I met is just too good not to share. So here we go!
What is Snowland Art School?
Snowland Art School (or 藏艺绘画发展有限责任公司) was founded by Canadian Kristel Ouwehand (aka. Tenzin Dolma) in 2010. The purpose of the school is to preserve the traditional way of painting thangkas, with the full preparations and the meanings behind all the Buddhist symbols. Since many students were interested in learning western style drawing and painting, that also became an integral part of the school’s 5-year program.
The fee is only 500 RMB per student for the five full years, and that includes all the art supplies as well as the housing. The purpose of the school is to teach high quality art which the students can use in their future careers as artists.
Women’s empowerment through art
Many thangka masters do not accept girls as students, since girls aren’t believed to be able to learn something as complex as art. But Tenzin, who is a well respected artist among the monks is a perfect example of how outdated this idea is. Now, she works hard to help her female students break stereotypes as well.
“At first I thought of starting a school for girls only. But then, if we want to change the situation for girls, we also need to change the boys. So we accept both girls and boys at the school,” she explains. The boys and girls now learn side by side, as equals.
The annual girl power camp
Each year the school welcomes girls, that are not regular students at the school, for a “Girl Power Week”. The teacher is Tenzin, along with the permanent female students of the school. During this week, the visiting girls learn the basics of drawing and also different crafts, baking and some English. They get to see some movies with strong female leads, and listen to some guest speakers – this year a local nun came to tell them her life story and the importance of choosing your own path.
The life for a typical Tibetan nomad girl isn’t easy, especially if she wants to follow a somewhat different path than what’s expected of her (like becoming an artist). Many are pressured to marry young (one year they had a girl who was forced to marry at 15!) or to choose a more “respectable career” that will secure a steady income.
When I was at the camp and listened to the stories of the girls, I was so inspired by the passion and the drive that they had. They knew life was not going to be easy if they chose the uncommon path as a female artist, but their love for art was so strong – I think many of them just needed some sort of outside support. Luckily, Snowland was there to provide it.
The school might have to close!
The school started in Tenzin’s small apartment in Xining but when the number of students grew, it was no longer sustainable. Instead, with the help of a friend, they bought a traditional Tibetan house in Xiahe, only a few hundred meters from Labrang Monastery (famous for its thangkas). But the friend who helped them through a loan, now urgently needs his money back – and have given them until March 1st to pay the full 500 000 RMB back, or they will have to sell the house.
How you can help the school
Tenzin and her husband managed to get 400 000 RMB together within just a couple of months. They are still working hard for the remaining 100 000 RMB. You can help the school by spreading the word (share this article!). You can also add Tenzin directly on WeChat where you can ask questions, be added to the fundraising group, buy handicrafts or make donations.