Meet Ann Shaftel, Director and Lead Instructor of Treasure Caretaker Training

Treasure Caretaker Training is proud to have Ann Shaftel at the helm of the organization, as our Director and lead instructor. Along with the awards we’ve received, and the heartfelt endorsements from teachers including His Holiness the 17th Karmapa and Ani Pema Chodron, it’s important that you know that our projects are led by someone with commitment, connection, and a wealth of professional and personal experience. That why we wanted to share with you a short bio that Ann Shaftel wrote a few years ago.

In this piece, she relates some of her early experiences of Buddhist sacred art treasures and instructions she’s received from Buddhist masters. We hope you find it interesting, and that it might inspire you to help support our work of teaching monks and nuns the skills to preserve and protect their priceless cultural and spiritual art treasures.

 

In 1970 my father brought me to India and we met His Holiness Karmapa 16 at Sarnath. HH Karmapa 16 was circumambulating the Mahastupa at sunset, single file with entourage from Rumtek Monastery.

Ann Shaftel

In Delhi, my father was inspired to purchase a 14th century Tara thangka for me, but Gelek Rimpoche, at Tibet House Delhi, advised us that thangka was a “fake painted yesterday” and we returned it to the art gallery. Then, HE Khamtrul Rinpoche of Tashi Jong painted a protector thangka for me that was new, and blessed. My interest in thangkas and preservation of Buddhist art grew! When His Holiness Karmapa 16 came to North America I was told then “your dharma work for this lifetime is preservation of thangkas and statues”. Ten years of graduate school followed, learning Buddhist iconography and Art Conservation.

During the 1970’s, I extensively researched traditional Buddhist art, including thangkas: techniques of manufacture, and traditional use and storage in monasteries. My research viewed thangka paintings and other forms of traditional Buddhist art in both cultural and religious contexts. During this time, for example, I never saw a thangka “restored”. The textile mountings were changed, perhaps when a donor made a donation to support this change, but the paintings themselves were never cleaned or repainted. Period. Rarely, I saw a hand-sewn patch from a remote monastery where a rat had eaten part of a painting. Thangkas that were considered unsuitable for use, fragile from age, were placed behind another newer thangka, in a respectful place in a storage room, or inside a stupa.

This traditional method of respectful care became threatened in the 1980’s, when sacred Buddhist artforms became “collectible”. More thangkas were removed from monasteries to be sold at auction or in art galleries, or collected by museums. Restorers, often thangka painters, were hired to try to clean away blessings from traditional puja offerings, and to overpaint damaged areas so the thangkas could look newer and fetch higher prices.

His Holiness the 17th Karmapa meeting with Ann Shaftel to advise Treasure Caretaker Training

I have interviewed traditional Buddhist masters, for over forty years. They have maintained that “if you want a new thangka, have one painted but do not destroy a blessed thangka treasure by trying to make it look new”. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, an accomplished and inspired thangka painter, asked me to place his two favourite thangkas in protective cases, behind special Plexiglas to filter out damaging ultra violet light rays, and “so that my devoted students won’t damage them” and he also gave me exact instructions on what to do if his thangka paintings required conservation treatment in the future. I have, in fact, worked as a conservator on his paintings.

In today’s world where art theft, along with drugs and gun running, is part of syndicated crime, and where political upheaval and natural disasters threaten cultural heritage treasures, the new emphasis of art conservation is on proactive preservation techniques that are sustainable.

Our Treasure Caretaker Training, Digital Monastery Project works directly with those who care for the cultural heritage treasures in their own monastery, town, or museum. They learn how to take confidential digital inventories and interview elders in their community in their own language. With these skills and abilities, these treasure caretakers are qualified to secure and protect their Buddhist monastery treasures from theft, damage caused by both natural disasters and people, and ultimate loss.

Please support our team in this important work, by donating whatever you can, through our website. Thank you.