Restoring art in the Himalayas

12 June, 2011 – The day Ephraim ‘Eddie’ Jose was shown century-old sacred scrolls moulding in a wooden chest in this Himalayan Kingdom he knew he would never be able to walk away and forget what he had seen.

A man who has been teaching and preserving ancient and religious works all his adult life cannot turn his back on any art in danger of being lost to humanity.

Since that day six years ago Eddie has become an identity in the kingdom of Bhutan, not only because he has restored one hundred and fifty sacred scrolls to their ancient glory or trained a team of 11 monks to help repair the treasures but he has financed the restoration and preservation project from his own pocket.

He has also organized a highly successful exhibition of Bhutanese Buddhist art in Switzerland and the United States and in the process has become perhaps the world’s foremost expert on this little country’s vast artistic treasures.

Today he flies to Bhutan for a few months of the year, escaping from his teaching job at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. But the day he arrives everyone knows ‘Eddie’ is in town because he drives the only Hummer limousine in the country, gaily painted with the Bhutan Thunder Dragon emblazoned on one side.

It all happened by accident.

“I was on a normal tourist visit to Bhutan when my departing flight was delayed. Someone suggested we look at the Museum. So we did. When the abbot heard I was a restorer of art he opened up his treasures. I saw a lot of good things but also a lot of really badly damaged thangkas (painted or embroidered religious scrolls)…… when I left the abbot looked at me and said: “I’ll see you again…”

He was right. The fate of those gradually deteriorating scrolls and statuettes kept Eddie sleepless.

He is a tough taskmaster. Although born in the Philippines he was educated in Japan. In the disciplinarian art restoration milieu of Japan he learned to treat every artifact as an irreplaceable gem. For him the thangkas and statuettes he receives for repair from hilltop monasteries where they have been kept for centuries are like precious charges for which he must assume full responsibility. He cracks the whip with his monks. He glares at them balefully if they are slack. He demands perfection and full concentration.

He says it can take a year to restore some thangkas, to painstakingly eliminate dirt and dust accumulated in monasteries lit by butter lamps and wooden fires, where vicious storms blow through the cracks and scrolls were not always kept protected in closed casks. Insect droppings are dabbed off, patiently dot by dot, for weeks; colors are carefully mixed to find the composition the original artist used. Bit by bit the thangka is restored.

The process is so intricate, the mixture of paints so secretive he will not allow major repairs to be made without his presence. A mistake by someone not yet fully trained could be disastrous for pieces whose value is immense should they ever reach the public market where they could be worth up to a million dollars.

“These pieces are priceless and part of the national patrimony. That’s why you’ll never see them on the market,” he says.

Of course, sometimes, the Michelangelo syndrome surfaces also in Bhutan. That is after the restoration of a thangka it becomes so colorful and dazzling that its custodians, the abbots and lamas, complain the original version could not have been so picturesque – just as critics complained of fake colors after the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

Eddie Jose is fighting a two-pronged battle: To restore damaged art and to convince Bhutan’s hundreds of monasteries and temples to create a safer environment for their priceless treasures. For a start they must place their traditional butter lamps into special containers to avoid the fires that have been responsible for the destruction not only of artifacts but entire temples and monasteries like the country’s famous Tiger’s Nest which had to be rebuilt completely. Not the ravages of time but fires have destroyed more art, temples and monasteries in Bhutan.

Now the master restorer wants smoke detectors in every monastery and temple, new electric wiring, fire extinguishers at strategic points, more light to see the paintings, more environmental friendly building material, less consumption of energy and most of all electric rice cookers instead of the open fire places that caused so many destructive conflagrations on mountain top monasteries where water is precious and there is never enough to put out a fire.

“You can repair the wreckage wrought by age but you cannot raise a piece of art from the ashes,” Eddie Jose says.

Contributed by Uli Schmetzer
The author has been a journalist for 42 years and lives part of the year in Italy, Australia and the Philippines