Lama Choenyi is a highly skilled torma artist and is responsible for many of the fancy tormas used at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, the North American seat of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, in Woodstock, New York. She recently sat down with me and graciously agreed to share her depth of knowledge and experience in the art of crafting “permanent tormas” out of clay and Fimo. She has spent many hours experimenting and over time has perfected techniques for working with the difficult-to-use materials.
When did you start making big, fancy tormas out of clay? Lama Lodro (the women’s three-year-retreat master at Karme Ling Retreat) asked me to make a set of large Mahakala tormas for KTD because the ones they were using were very old and also too small. The initial problem was in finding the right materials, so I checked the art store in Woodstock for a suitable clay. I didn’t want to use Sculpey (a polymer clay) for the big tormas because Sculpey cracks, but once I experimented with natural, air-dry clay, I found that it works very nicely and smoothly.
The Mahakala tormas I made are very large, and I found that big tormas will shrink quite a lot as they dry, and if they aren’t hollowed out somewhat they will crack in the drying process. So after the torma is shaped and is partially dry, I hollow out the main body of the torma (but not the head). In the end, once the torma is completely dry, the hollow part will be filled up with blessed substances, and it will become very heavy again, but at least during the drying process it isn’t.
At what point in the shaping process do you hollow it out? First I make the whole shape as perfectly as possible. I wait a little bit and let it dry for about a week with a plastic bag over it before I hollow it out. This [hollowing out] will speed up the drying process.
Why use a plastic bag? The big tormas take several months to dry. So I leave the plastic bag on for a while, then take it off, and then put it back on. Taking the plastic on and off allows me to control the drying process so the clay doesn’t crack. During the drying process, the torma needs to be placed on a rack that will allow air to circulate underneath, like a cookie cooling rack. Once it starts to dry and harden, it’s easy to refine the shape because you can add a little more clay, or take some away. At the end when it is completely dry, you can smooth it with sand paper. And then you can fill it with blessed substances.
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche filled the tormas and I have the list here of what he put inside: in general he used damtsik (samaya substances), which include mani pills, rice blessed by the 16th and 17th Karmapa and the previous Kalu Rinpoche, (Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche has a collection of different kinds of rice blessed by holy beings), saffron, and a Tibetan text that he rolled up. For the Nyingzuk, because it represents the deity itself, Rinpoche put the body, speech and mind mantras of the deity inside, using the same text that he used when he filled the big Mahakala statue at KTD. Then he adds in fragrant substances like cloves, coriander seeds, and incense sticks, and then dried flower petals, five-colored silks, bits of paper printed with auspicious signs and symbols, and precious jewels. These are some of the same substances you would use to fill a statue since the Nyingzuk, like a statue, is a representation of the deity. Then once the hollow was filled, he sealed the bottom of the torma. Rinpoche used epoxy mixed with a little bit of powdered clay. Once that dried, Rinpoche sealed the torma further with an image of a double vajra and a red cloth glued over bottom of the torma.
Once the torma is all filled and ready to paint, you use a base coat of primer, let it dry, and then cover that with two or three coats of acrylic paint. When that is completely dry, you apply the glaze. The best glaze I found is the same glaze that they use on wood floors: a clear, water-based, high-gloss polyurethane. Be sure and use water-based polyurethane because it will not turn yellow over time. Oil-based polyurethane will yellow with age. You need at least two layers of this. The glaze dries fast; it only takes about two hours in between coats. After the last coat of glaze is completely dry, you can apply the norbus (jewels), marku (white lines), and gyens (ornaments) to the torma. For this I use Fimo polymer clay, (this is the name for a brand of polymer clay made by the German company Staedtler, and is found in art and craft stores in the U.S.) Here are the Fimo colors:
After you apply the norbus, marku, and gyens, you have to bake it in the oven. The marku must be glued on though, and I use crazy glue for that. The instructions on the Fimo package are to bake it for 30 minutes, but because the torma itself is so big, once the decorations are applied to the torma, you have to bake it much longer than it indicates in the instructions. For instance, if you bake a flower gyen on its own in the oven, it doesn’t take more than 15 or 30 minutes. However, once you have applied the gyens to a large torma, you have to let it bake for at least 50 minutes. Follow the directions for the temperature on the Fimo package (230° F).
I mix the colors with “Effect White” to get a translucent effect. The Fimo is very hard and you need to use a softener when you are mixing the colors for your palette. If you don’t use the softener it can take hours to knead. I found that a few drops of unscented baby oil per each block of Fimo works very well as a softener. I also pass the Fimo through a pasta machine many times to help with the kneading and softening process. This is a big time-saver but it is still a lot of work to mix the mother color with white to get the different shades of color. (You need many shades of the primary colors for the gyens). I mix the solid Fimo colors with a little bit of “soft white” Fimo plus “effect white” to get the varying shades of the colors I like to work with. Once the Fimo gyens are baked, they are very strong and will last a long time. One thing to keep in mind is that the Fimo colors darken as they bake, so you need to make samples to know what the color will look like after it bakes. Enjoy a slideshow of some of Lama Choenyi’s tormas: