Interview with Trinkar Ötso, Artist in Residence

Aaron Bethune, a regular volunteer at Gampo Abbey, sat down for a chat with Trinkar Ötso to talk about her path in art and dharma and her views on the role of creative work in a contemplative life.

Aaron Bethune: I’m interested in understanding your background in art and Buddhism and how those two have brought you to Gampo Abbey.

Trinkar Ötso:   I first touched on Buddhism actually as a teenager. When I read an article or saw something on TV, I haven’t been able to locate the original article, but it was about the early investigations of brainwave activity on meditators. For some reason, this caught my attention and I wrote a research paper on this in high school. This would’ve been in probably 1971 or 72. These were the very early studies on meditators using biofeedback technology. This took me for the first time to a university library where I read one of the few books that they had on Buddhism, which was Roshi Phillip Kapleau’s, Three Pillars of Zen. There’s a lot in that book about living in a monastic environment, which I thought sounded incredibly austere, somewhat cruel, and really intriguing <laugh>. In a very odd coincidence, a few years later in a college course that I took called Creativity and Problem Solving, our teacher offered us meditation practice as kind of a pathway into creative processes and he turned out to be a student of Roshi Phillip Kapleau and he was kind of amazed that I had read that book.

It was in Toronto and Roshi Phillip Kapleau had a community there and in Rochester, New York. So right away it was so bizarre that I should come from a little rural town in southern Quebec and make that connection. I maintained a meditation practice for a few years on and off and I didn’t have anybody around me to support it. So it flagged and every once in a while I’d meet another meditator and I’d be like, oh yeah, I should get back to that. But it really wasn’t until I moved to Halifax and connected with the Shambhala community through my therapist that I leaned into a practice. My therapist had been a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche for many years and never pushed the idea of meditation on me, but every once in a while, she would say, gee, isn’t that interesting what your mind just did? And nobody had ever offered me the option of looking at my mind instead of my story. And I was some pissed, I’m not done telling you my hard luck story here. But she ever so gently every few weeks would say, isn’t that interesting what your mind did? And then suddenly I said, oh yeah, it was interesting. So that was my hook to get back into meditation.  And then to have this ready-made thick community in Halifax was the container I was needing; from then on, it was full steam ahead.

Aaron Bethune: And throughout this process, were you making the connection between art and meditation and how that was affecting your work?

Trinkar Ötso:     I actually came to art quite late in life. Before I came to Halifax I had gone to graduate school to pursue environmental studies and I happened to take a course about the critical understanding of images in the media. My professor wanted us to understand not just how to think critically about images but how to make images as well; so she taught us how to print black-and-white photographs. We had this lovely little dark room in the faculty of environmental studies at York University and something magical happened. I went into that dark room with no sense of having any artist in me at all. My original training had been in engineering, so I had no sense of that. And suddenly, honestly, it was like something cracked open and I just had to keep going. I changed the whole focus of my master’s thesis. I started plein air watercolour painting and found that the experience of sitting still and looking long enough at a scene, a landscape or whatever, changed the very nature of my relationship with the environment. I could no longer just feel separate. This got me thinking that if one of the roots of our environmental disaster is our disconnection from the rest of the natural environment, then maybe if more people could learn to sit and really look at their environment, sit long enough to paint it, well, the world might be better. I took a trip down the Ohio River valley when I was just beginning to paint to look at coal-fired power plants. The experience of painting those power plants changed how interconnected I felt with the whole system. I wasn’t just critiquing the plants, I realized that I was driving a car that was made of steel that probably came from that very valley, as an example. Before I could finish my master’s thesis I thought I needed more training in art so I came to Halifax to study at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Later I went on to more art studies and did a Masters in Fine Art and my interest including my thesis work was always in exploring the intersection of contemplative practice and art practice.

This got me thinking that if one of the roots of our environmental disaster is our disconnection from the rest of the natural environment, then maybe if more people could learn to sit and really look at their environment, sit long enough to paint it, well, the world might be better.

Aaron Bethune: So where in all of this did the idea of coming and doing temporary ordination at Gampo Abbey and becoming a nun come from?

Trinkar Ötso:     I think ever since I started doing residential programs at various centres, including centres within the Shambhala community, but other centres as well, I kind of had the idea in my mind that I wanted to come and work in a place like this and support this incredible opportunity for people to get out of their regular schedule and their pace and their story and come and just be people sitting quietly together. It is a profound experience to step out of the fast lane and do that. So I think from the very beginning I had that ambition. I had been teaching at Goddard College for about 13 years and they were downsizing the faculty so I took a voluntary layoff. The timing was good. I had also been caring for my elderly mother for several years and both she and my little doggie had died so I had a little freedom to do this.

Aaron Bethune: Did you feel that you’d have to put art on pause or was that something that you felt you would be able to integrate?

Trinkar Ötso:     No, I knew I wanted to keep going, but I was very quiet about it. I knew I had to work small and that there would be just a little bit of time. So I brought very small paper. I was working on TerraSkin (stone paper) with a very limited pallet of acrylic paints. I taped them down to a plastic place mat on my desk in my little tiny nun’s room. And every morning after breakfast I’d go upstairs and I’d put on this funny little apron and paint. Nobody knew for probably most of the first year that I was making art in the mornings. So from about 7:20 am, if I ate my breakfast quickly, to about 7:50 am I could make art in my room. Then I’d pin them up on my cupboard door and every month I’d put them away. I titled everything that I made according to the Sojong cycle, that’s the new moon and full moon ceremony where we renew our monastic vows, about every two weeks. I have a master number on each image, and then the Sojong cycle in which it was made. By the end of my first year, I had a very full shoebox of work.

Aaron Bethune: Did that sort of constraint of time in which you would work on the artwork would impact your art?

Trinkar Ötso:     Well, it has a positive impact. Honestly, like many artists, the big wide open day with the big empty canvas is terrifying. I know I’ve just seen my pattern for over 30 years now. If I have something else I should be doing then the art really, really blossoms. <laugh>. I can’t say that I fantasize about having all day, every day, to make art because I don’t think I would be as productive as squeezing it into other interesting things to do.

Trinkar Ötso:  I’ve seen the time, space and materials constraints as an opportunity. I only have that 25 minutes, so whatever “masterpiece” I’m going to make is going to be a 25-minute masterpiece. But you have to make a lot of really lousy paintings to make a good one. So volume is important.

Aaron Bethune: What medium do you use paint-wise?

Trinkar Ötso:  Well, in those first years here I was using all water-based materials because I had to sneak out into the bathroom to clean my brushes and things like that. <laugh>, but now that I have some wonderful studio space here, I can go back to oil and cold wax on wood panels, which is my more common medium. I’ve also been playing with fabrics in the last year as well. I’m not inclined to stick to one medium. After my first year I came out of my room and started working in my sketchbook around the property more. But it was the same 25-minute practice after breakfast, either in the garden or in the workshop or somewhere around the land.

Aaron Bethune: I wasn’t sure if you were working on the same piece 25 minutes a day or if it was 25 minutes to do an entire piece?

Trinkar Ötso:     No, I’m working very small so I try to finish in 25 minutes. Occasionally I’ll go back to a piece and do some more but not that often. In my sketchbook, none of the sketches that I make are really detailed. I’m hoping that they’re kind of accessible to people that way. A sketch doesn’t have to be fancy to say something, it’s a 25-minute sketch.

Aaron Bethune: Yes, that’s it, what I’ve seen of your sketchbook is that it has a lot of movement. So what happened when people realized this is what you’re doing <laugh>?

Trinkar Ötso:     Well, first they recognized that I was wearing this funny apron that I got because it’s the right shape to protect my robes, but it had booze bottles all over it. So it was completely inappropriate but did a good job of protecting my robes. It tried to never be seen in it. But somebody came to my door early once and looked in and said, oh that’s what’s going on in here? So slowly it came out. It wasn’t until the sketchbook started coming out and people saw me sketching around the place that it became more obvious.

Aaron Bethune: Did you have people ask about it and perhaps see if there was a way for you to share with them some of your knowledge?

Trinkar Ötso:     They did ask me and it wasn’t my inclination to say, here, let me teach you this. It was more like, why don’t you come on out with me? And I love buying supplies, so I always had a lot of supplies to offer. You want a sketchbook? I’ve got one, here’s two or three you can choose from. So I just give people a sketchbook and a nice pen to work with and show that you don’t need a lot of fancy things and come along with me. I’d go up to the workshop and one or two other people would come up and we’d be in silence just working in different areas of the shop.

Aaron Bethune: Would you provide any sort of direction at all or suggestions?

Trinkar Ötso:     I have done a couple of little tutorials and I did one workshop with about five people here where we set up a still life and talked about the practice of seeing. That was a fun experience because these were seasoned meditators that were able to reflect on their personal process. And from there people jumped into their sketchbooks and kept going.

Aaron Bethune: So at what point were you feeling the connection of the meditative aspect? Because now obviously meditation is a big part of your life and it sounds like there was a connection made in the dark room, but at the same time was there a moment in which you started to apply what you were finding through meditation in the shrine room to your art? And was there any change in the art when that happened?

Trinkar Ötso:     I think it came up most prominently in the angst of art! That moment in the creative process where everything is falling apart and I think oh, I can’t do this, it’s just not working out. I mean, it’s a very predictable stage. It happens in every single project. And eventually, I realized that, oh, this is just my mind doing that thing now and I don’t have to run away with it. I don’t have to give up because my mind is doing this right now. Just stick with the work. And that’s where the strength of learning to know my mind really started to come in. I once co-led a class with an experienced meditator who is an actor and one of the students asked “so what does meditation have to do with acting?” And she said something like well, it mostly has to do with the business of acting and the inevitable vicissitudes of a career. It gives you ways to work with the craziness.

Trinkar Ötso:     That’s really stayed with me. It’s also in the business of getting the work done where it comes in handy. I can’t say that when I look at something… I’m not particularly slow at looking at things. You wouldn’t think that I’m a contemplative looker because I’m kind of fast the way I do most things <laugh>. But it’s when that frequent negative voice comes up that I think that the meditation practice can help with the most.

Aaron Bethune: So being here at the Abbey, I mean it’s a pretty unique place in the world to be. It’s the horizon. Just looking at the horizon, here’s a pretty incredible, how has the location affected your heart?

Trinkar Ötso:     Oh, that has been significant. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think of how lucky I am to see that wide horizon and the big sky. And I think about people who never get to see a horizon, who live in a city surrounded by tall buildings. I mean it’s extraordinary here. And as Ani Pema describes  – the environment wakes you up, it does half the job, frankly. So the sense of spaciousness, all I need to do is look out at the ocean. It’s for that reason that a lot of the work that I’ve produced here has been about the horizon line and the vastness and how it changes all the time. In one minute you can have fog at the horizon so that it blurs the boundary between ocean and sky entirely and then it clears. Then you see the colour of the water changing from month to month during the year as the light changes. So that’s infinitely interesting to me. I would say that space has been just a huge injection into my meditation practice and my art practice

I think about people who never get to see a horizon, who live in a city surrounded by tall buildings. I mean it’s extraordinary here.

Aaron Bethune: As a meditator, do you see things differently? I know that for a lot of artists it’s the ability to see things just as they’ll talk about seeing negative space. Do you find that being here coupled with the meditation practice and your day-to-day activities at the Abbey, is there any aspect of your observation and how that flows onto paper?

Trinkar Ötso:     So I’m not a super duper meditator <laugh> that stays calm all the time. I’m almost never calm <laugh>. I know there are some days when I might even conjure a creative idea because it’s more soothing to sit with a comforting creative idea as opposed to the argument that I’m having in my head.

Aaron Bethune: Well, I guess what I’m getting at is the idea of emptiness and the idea that we have sort of this ability to project ourselves into all the things that we see and create. We fill these objects with our thoughts and feelings. I think it’s sometimes interesting when you look at artmaking, emotions come out and feelings come out and movement comes out. But at the same time, on a very basic level, it is drawing lines. From some of the things I’ve read about Zen and calligraphy and these sorts of things, and even being married to a calligrapher, I know you don’t write the letter C or the letter A, you write shapes. And in a way that’s sort of meditative practice as well. So I’m wondering if you can also see from the other side of things, and use the artwork in the practice of how you see things? Because you talked earlier about how working with an artist to meditate versus a meditator to do art and you’ve seen both sides of those things. When you work with a meditator to create art what are the differences that you might see compared to when you work with an artist who’s interested in meditation?

Trinkar Ötso:     There is definitely a kind of paying attention that happens in the creative process that is, for me, a delicious way of training my mind. Then there is the kind of predictable anxiety that come up from both camps. An artist who’s learning to meditate goes through that same process of saying, oh my gosh, my mind is so busy I couldn’t possibly sit still for that long. And a seasoned meditator learning to draw, for example, draw from observation, I would say, how do you make that shape? So anxiety abounds from both sides probably, the intensity is the same. It’s just an anxiety, and I get to experience both of those <laugh>. And so it’s part of becoming familiar with my mind and my artmaking practice.

Aaron Bethune: I’m sure you’ve read the book Drawing on The Right Side of the Brain and the idea of using your non-dominant hand to write with. And that in itself is challenging because I think, if I speak for myself, you’re trying to draw still life, you’re trying to draw what you see. And sometimes the frustration can be that it doesn’t look anything like what you <laugh>, what you’re looking at. And so when you take to the non-dominant hand, the chances of it looking like you were hoping it to become even slimmer <laugh>, right? But it’s sort of interesting because now you look at the idea of working with meditators to bring art into their practice and it seems like it almost is a similar process in which you’re saying use your non-dominant hand or not, it’s the idea of coming to something from a different angle that is creating an experience.

Trinkar Ötso:     That example that you use of working with a non-dominant hand is an illustrative example of taking the pressure off yourself because well – I’m just doing this with my non-dominant hand, how good is it going to be? So right away you take the pressure off which is a little bit like in sitting practice. If you have the instruction –  whatever comes up is fine, just sit with it, well that takes the pressure off my mind, and I can practice becoming gentle and kind to myself. My mind doesn’t have to be a particular way. And somebody may tell you that in fact, your mind is going to feel like a waterfall and that’s fine too.

Downward Dog Pencil Yoga

So those two are very good examples of changing the view, I suppose. And when I’m helping a meditator learn to do pencil yoga, as I call it, joining the pencil and the movement of the hand, it’s a very physical process. I always tell them my personal goal is to make it look ish. There’s a wide range of marks we can make on a paper that another person’s mind would say, oh, that’s a chair. And if it’s in the range of chair-ish- I think it’s just fine. There’s a tyranny of accuracy that we can fall under that is debilitating. If I want to make this drawing look like that chair that I see with my eye, well the eye is always going to have so much more capacity to detect data, way more than a line on a page. Even a photograph has already edited out so much information, but a drawing is a gross approximation and it’s astonishing how few marks you need to make for a drawing read as a chair. If you compare that to sitting in meditation, if 10,000 times in a 40-minute practice session you’re coming back and going, oh geez, where was I, come on back in the room, that’s meditation.  There’s no tyranny of staying right there all the time, you just come back to it. It’s the nature of the mind to be distracted. It doesn’t matter how many times you come back.

Trinkar Ötso:     If every drawing that you ever made always looked like a photograph, would you keep drawing? I certainly wouldn’t because the deliciousness is to make it, maybe a bit wonky. I look at it and I think, oh, that’s kind of adorable <laugh> how wonky is that!

If every drawing that you ever made always looked like a photograph, would you keep drawing?

Trinkar Ötso: Here at the Abbey, we probably use our voices more than in a lot of places. I used to have a terrible fear of my singing voice for many years until I started working with seniors and hosting a weekly singing group at a nursing home. There’s nothing better to get over that fear than a group of seniors, half of whom can’t hear me, and the other half adores me just because I show up all the time. So I learned to belt out those tunes from the forties and fifties, no problem, I got over that fear. And I always said the only other place that you could sing was in a church. So here, when we sing one devotional song every day, I probably don’t have it right, but who’s going to complain <laugh> is the question. We can belt it out in the songs that mean something to us. It’s like I can be a kid singing here.

Aaron Bethune: That’s funny because I appreciate your voice because I don’t have the background, I’ve never heard the originals to learn from. So I appreciate your voice because I can hear it <laugh> and so I know where to go with the melody. I guess it’s the ability to be in that space where you can do that as opposed to limiting yourself and analyzing.

Trinkar Ötso:     It seems like the meditation hall is a place where we can bring our minds to do what they do as opposed to our minds having to be a certain way. And boy, mine is some unruly, that’s for sure. And the same with my paintings. Every year when I work on the Losar (Lunar New Year) card, for example, a few years ago when I did the Iron Ox card, oh man, I created dozens and dozens of bad iron ox. It was just laughable. So my approach is that you have to make about a hundred bad ones before you get a good one. I have photos of my workspaces. I kept moving to different places to see if it would get any better. I went down to my office in the bunker for a while and I have a photo of them all over that office. And then one day I said, oh, this isn’t working. I’m going to go over to Sopa Chöling to do it on the table there. And then there’s a picture of all of those there and that isn’t working either. They’re funny to look at because, I lived with a poodle for so many years, and a lot of the animals that I paint look like a poodle at first. So everything starts out looking like a toy poodle and then it morphs into its iron ox-ness.

Aaron Bethune: Tell me a bit about the Artist in Residence appointment and what it means for you.

Trinkar Ötso:     I’m honoured that the contribution I’ve made to the Abbey has been recognized and I’m exceptionally grateful to have been offered a designated workspace that is bigger so that I can expand into some larger work now. The first year I was here, I hosted a salon at the end of what was our monastic residency, where people were invited to choose how they wanted to present work that they had been doing over the year. And we moved from place to place where people showed their work and we had a chance to engage and ask questions.

And the work was amazing. One nun had been a filmmaker, so she made a lovely little video just using her iPhone. Other people had written great poetry. There were drawings and some excellent prose writing, and some yarn work, three-dimensional work using yarns and threads. And then I showed some of my paintings. So it was a way of kind of celebrating that this can be part of our practice too. Anything that makes you slow down and gets you out of your normal hustle and bustle mind I think has value in our path.

Aaron Bethune: And Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche had art in his life as well.

Trinkar Ötso:     He certainly did. He demonstrated that there are so many ways to work with slowing down and with the mind. He made films, he made incredible arrangements with flowers. He was a calligrapher. He painted the Mahakala image that we have on our protector shrine. So we’re very lucky that he presented those things to us as, hey, these are all useful things to do.

Aaron Bethune: I’ve seen, of course, your (Alphabet Tools) project with the sketchbook, which I love, the wonkiness of the tools and the different things that appear in it and the colours, I enjoyed seeing that. I’m wondering what are your thoughts on this Artist in Residence designation as it pertains to what you’ve been working on and what you see yourself doing in the future.

Trinkar Ötso:     Well, in the future I’d like to try some kind of art and meditation program here. A short program where people might come in and experience this, either seasoned artists or seasoned meditators and maybe an interesting blend of the two of those and see what we can discover for ourselves. The designation maybe just give us a little cache <laugh>, I suppose. It is helpful that way. I have not done the path of formal training in Shambhala arts, for example. There is a whole path to that and I haven’t done that, so this comes from my years of teaching at the university level in different settings where there were fewer meditators but more artists.

Aaron Bethune: And how are you involving the community in this?

Trinkar Ötso:     Well, my primary role is as a cheerleader for creative work right now, to say yes, our creative work is part of our contemplative practice and we can make space for that in our lives here. It is a contemplative community that has many elements to it. This is one that I’m the cheerleader for.

Aaron Bethune: You’re a great cheerleader for it, I think. How would you people find out about the work?

Trinkar Ötso:     I’ll post regularly on the Abbey blog, and I also have a personal website

Aaron Bethune: Well, I’m always curious about how people’s lives led up to this moment. Being at Gampo Abbey, which is in many ways so far removed from how most people exist. It’s not a straight line…it’s these little things along the way that lead to this. But even after you came to Gampo Abbey, once you’d done your temporary monastic residency you decided to sell your house.

Trinkar Ötso:     Well, yes, after almost three years as a temporary monastic, I was offered a job managing a project which was going to take more time per week than what the monastic schedule would allow. So I chose to give up my ordination then because I knew by then that I was not going to go on to take life vows. I went home to Prospect Village for a few months and sold my house and freed myself up. I came here for a nine-month residency and it’s been six years now.

Aaron Bethune: Do you see yourself leaving Gampo Abbey?

Trinkar Ötso:  Well, I’ve been saying that I want to leave by the time I’m 70 because there are still a few things I’d like to do elsewhere.  But in many ways, life here at the Abbey has many of the elements I want in a life. I consider it my four daily nutrients: practice, creative time, exercise, and connection with people. I had no idea I would enjoy living in community as much as I do. That was a big surprise because I’d been living on my own since 1989. Who knew how lovely it would be to have my coffee made every morning? Never in my life has that happened until I came here.

Aaron Bethune: Well, thank you Trinkar.

Trinkar Ötso:     And thank you Aaron.

Aaron Bethune is a writer, an entrepreneur, a storyteller, and an advisor as well as a frequent volunteer at Gampo Abbey. You can read more about him and the work he does in his New Glasgow NS based company at

Trinkar Ötso is currently the Director of Gampo Abbey and Artist in Residence. Her artwork can be viewed on her website