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School of Fine ArtsThe William Benton Museum of Art

Sera: The Way of the Tibetan Monk, The Photographs of Sheila Rock

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August 26 – December 19, 2008

Sheila Rock, Golden Buddha, silver gelatin print, Courtesy Sheila Rock and June Bateman Fine Art, NYC

Sheila Rock, Golden Buddha, silver gelatin print, Courtesy Sheila Rock and June Bateman Fine Art, NYC

Sheila Rock’s Sera: The Way of the Tibetan Monk is only occasionally a photographic document of the daily life of the Tibetan monks of the Sera Monastery in Bylakuppe in Southern India’s Mysore district. Rather, it is an extended visual essay on a state of mind; portraits of a group of individuals, many of them teenagers and children as well as elderly, who share a common social and philosophical framework in Tibetan Buddhism.In 1998, when Sheila Rock, an established fashion and portrait photographer, first encountered the monks and life in the Sera Monastery, she was struck by the quietude and serenity of the place and the individuals. The following year, with the permission of the abbot, she returned and began photographing the monks and novices individually and in groups. Perhaps from her background in fashion photography, she frequently used a plain backdrop for the many portraits of one or two individuals. This had the effect of removing the figure from the context of

Sheila Rock, Midnight Meditation, silver gelatin print, William Benton Museum of Art

Sheila Rock, Midnight Meditation, silver gelatin print, William Benton Museum of Art

the monastery and focusing intensely on the subject himself. Many of these portrait studies appear to reveal the individual’s inner personality, yet because of the language barrier, she “felt that [she]was working completely visually.” Clearly, it is her intuitive visual aesthetic that coaxes from these portraits the mind of the individual portrayed and the compelling beauty of the imagery.

She also has taken photographs of the monks in their rooms, at work, at prayer, at play, or ceremonially gathered. These photographs, with their discursive subjects and more complex backgrounds, are artistically different from the individual portraits. However, they share one quality that is expressive of the personality of the monks individually and as a group. They have within them a mutual joy for the company of one another and for the life that has been chosen for them. If the serenity of the individual is only implied in the larger numbers of these images, the satisfaction of the monks with the life of the Buddhist monastery is complete. Sheila Rock’s images speak clearly of a Buddhist adherence to a life of meditation and learning, and the quest to overcome strife, anxiety, and venality in our human sphere. Artistically, she has created a body of works that are the loveliest of pictures.

 

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