Sonam Yeshi is the oldest of four children from a Tibetan/European family that settled in India in the late ‘70s. Born in the UK, she was raised and educated in the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala, India. She grew up surrounded by animals, artists and craftsmen, many of whom lived in the Yeshi family home.
Sonam was four years old when she was first introduced to art. A group of eighteen Tibetan monks moved into the family’s house to work with her mother making dolls. The monks, over the nineteen years of their stay, made more than a thousand dolls, which found their place in museums around the world. The doll-making atelier occupied a whole side of the house, including a large terrace area, where the monks worked and slept. It also doubled as a playroom for the children, who handled clay and paints, built their own dolls, dabbled with sewing or just brought in their toys and enjoyed the company. The monks had regular animal visitors too; monkeys, who jumped in from the trees that surround the terrace, civets, a talking parrot, and the family dogs who learned to stick around when the monks used raw meat to stiffen brocade.
Sonam began painting at ten. By then, she had often travelled to Paris where her grandparents enjoyed taking her and her sister to the Louvre and telling stories about the paintings. Her preferred subject was animals, particularly mothers and their young, which she did in inks and watercolors. At twelve, she began going to the atelier of Gonkar Gyatso, a modern trained Tibetan artist who had recently arrived from Lhasa and was learning traditional thangka painting in Dharamsala. He introduced her to painting techniques and clay sculpture. Gonkar went on to receive a Master of Arts at St Martin’s in London and is now one of the most prominent and renowned Tibetan painters. Later, she took lessons from a Tibetan doctor/artist who specialized in medicinal plant paintings and in France she worked with her grandfather painting flowers and birds on porcelain.
In the early ‘90s, Sonam’s parents established the Norbulingka Institute to preserve Tibetan art and create a supportive environment for traditional Tibetan artisans, mainly Thangka painters, applique workers and statue makers. Sonam grew up as Norbulingka was being built, which included the full decoration of a temple, where the doll artisans lent their hand in the clay sculptures of the Buddha’s halo, and the thangka apprentices painted the murals. The family weekends were mostly spent there, watching the artisans work and commenting on the progress. The thangka master, Temba Gyaltsen, a genius of Tibetan decorative arts, produced endless renderings of flowers, animals and other creatures, which Sonam collected and made into an archive. She still returns to this collection, nearly a decade after Temba’s passing, as inspiration for her own art.
In 2001, Sonam made her first trip to Tibet. She has returned almost every year since. The people, as well as the architecture, the landscape and, of course, the animals she encountered there have become major subjects for her paintings and drawings.
Sonam began with inks and watercolors and pastels, and then moved on to oil and acrylic on wood or canvas. Around ten years ago she began working with a Tibetan method of relief painting, on which much of her work is now based.
Sonam graduated in 2006 from Parsons School of Design in New York with a major in Fashion Design.