Norwegian artist Wilvin Pedersen, one of the earliest members of the Community, talks about her life as an artist and how she met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu
I would like to tell the story about me being Wilvin. I was born in Norway in 1948 and spent my first seven years in an orphanage, since I came into this world as a so-called accident. Those days, my mother could not take care of me because she had to work, and the only work she got was on big ships going all over the world.
Then I moved to my aunt and uncle for a couple of years before I could live with my mother. By this time I was already used to taking care of myself and when I was fourteen nobody could tell me what to do. My mother was a very nice and different person though.
At school when I was 13 I had a very special art teacher who gave me an easel and told me to go and work in the back room. He showed me how to do a few things and I made some drawings and paintings from photos of paintings of Van Gogh and Modigliani works. This made me very happy and I just loved it.
When I was sixteen I started to study at another school with an art class but quit after half a year. I continued to roam around. Then at eighteen I went to London England to City and Guilds of London Art School where I learned a lot about classical art forms. But I only stayed 3-4 months because I couldn’t stand living in a big city and missed the nature of Norway.
Back in Norway I started to hang out with different artists in Oslo and became a model for one of them. The same artist showed me how to prepare canvases, I watched him paint, washed his floor, and also became his lover. And that was how I really started to paint for real. My world was filled with classical music, red wine and painting.
People advised me to apply to go to the State Art College in Oslo, so I did and they accepted me immediately. Even there I was still very stubborn. I didn’t want to listen to anybody so instead of being a student in a normal way I started to choose whatever I wanted to learn, skipping classes when I wanted to. The headmaster would ask me to come and show him my paintings and I would show them to him from time to time and he told me that if I continued like that I would go far. He even gave me money to visit the Rembrandt museum in Holland. Anyway I spent four years there although I never did an exam but just studied what I wanted to learn, a very fruitful time.
Then, at the age of 22, I moved up into the mountains of Norway with some friends living in the wilderness far away from civilization. When I was 24 my son Marius was born. Marius’ father was a very good artist but he wanted me to only do women’s work like knitting and weaving but I continued to paint as well. We split after three years.
When Marius was nearly one year old, I met Ole and Hanna Nydahl from Denmark who introduced me to the Dharma. Things changed and I became less wild, everything started to make sense and I recognized that my view of life was linked to the Buddhist view. I was home. I went to Copenhagen where I met Tibetan lamas for the first time. To be able to stay there for a month, I paid my stay with a painting.
Back in Norway, I got a cabin in the forest of Oslo and started the Ngondro practice, doing it all very fast so I could receive the next initiation. That took a lot of my time because like many other young people, when you start practising, that is what you do, and not much else besides being a mother of course. I continued to paint a little and when I painted something, I kept it very private and didn’t show it to anyone. I didn’t consider my capacity for painting. For me it was just something ordinary.
At some point I decided to take part in a stipend exhibition in an important gallery in Oslo to show my works, where if they like the work, they support you in your studies. I hung my paintings up but totally forgot to make an application for the support so I didn’t manage to get any help.
Later I participated in an exhibition with other artists in Oslo. At that time I was doing more traditional types of paintings and working with oils on canvas but also color pencils, red chalk and coal on paper. I did a lot of portraits. I was always very much engaged in expressions and space, such as big skies, and I also painted natural scenes with forests, wood, sometimes in a fairy tale style.
In autumn 1975 I decided to join a lot of Dharma people from Scandinavia on a bus ride to India and Marius was left behind with his aunt for three months
After nearly 3 weeks we ended up in Leh-Ladakh, which is north of Kashmir, close to the Tibetan border. This was the first year tourists could enter Ladakh, and it was incredible to meet some great Lamas and these simple, beautiful people.
Coming back to Norway I met an American writer who came to Norway when Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche visited. He saw my paintings and suggested I illustrate a book and he would write the story. So I worked on the color drawings and when we took the work to a publishing house, they said they would be happy to use the drawings but that the story was not good enough.
My son and I came to Italy in autumn 1976 and met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu for the first time. I was amazed meeting this community. It was a big turning point for me in understanding practice. It was so simple, loving and direct but I was still very conditioned so I did not see all Norbu Rinpoche’s qualities. I also had the fortune to meet Khamtrul Rinpoche, Dorzong Rinpoche and Drugu Chögyal Rinpoche in Rome at the same time. The trip to Italy was like a great gift and after being there for two months, we went back to Norway where I prepared for the visit of Khamtrul Rinpoche, Dorzong Rinpoche and Drugu Chögyal Rinpoche who wanted to come to Karma Tashi Ling in the winter of 1977. They stayed for three weeks before going to England and during that time Khamtrul Rinpoche, Chögyal Rinpoche and I painted the Gönpa in Karma Tashi ling.
In May ’79, my friends of the Norwegian Dzogchen Community and I invited Norbu Rinpoche. This was really a great change somehow. His way of teaching, his great compassion and his way of explaining, so people really got to understand the nature of mind and way of being, existence itself, entering into the state, was a new dimension for many practitioners. Norbu Rinpoche has the great capacity to help living beings, to let them see their unobstructed pure nature of origin, beyond concepts of mind.
Since this is a story I must also tell you that we had a fantastic trip crossing the mountains after the retreat in Oslo. We ended up on the west coast of Norway visiting Marit and Gordon’s nice place in one of the fiords. To go there we had to cross the fiord. We were about 15 people, Americans, Italians and Norwegians crossing in this little boat. There was a storm and big waves but with the help of Norbu Rinpoche we all crossed safely. But time means that everything has an end, also this retreat.
Then in 1981 we invited Norbu Rinpoche for another retreat. That retreat was held in my home in the forest of Oslo, a very simple little place with no modern facilities. Anyway this retreat made me see the necessity of moving to Italy, which Norbu Rinpoche approved. So at Christmas ’81 my son Marius and I came to the retreat in Sardegna and afterwards we stayed in Italy for some years.
We lived in Formia, Arcidosso and Rome for some years and nobody knew that I painted. When I was on my own at home and I could really connect to that world. There was never any question and I never thought about talking about it. It was never an option for me.
We returned to Norway in 1986 and remained for five years. During that time I was working as a painter and props maker in two theatres in Oslo but also working as a helper in a home for old people for some months. As usual I was also painting in my free time still mostly in oil on canvas.
Then in the 90s after coming back to Italy, I started to paint in the Merigar Gönpa. At the beginning I was working outside. Nobody knew that I was a painter. I just said, “Look I can paint”. I worked with the Buryatian painters, Batodalai Dugarov and his son, Zorick and other painters. Then I helped with the decoration inside on the ceiling. Then the Tibetans came.
Drugu Chögyal Rinpoche came about three times to work on the panel of the Primordial Masters. Tsering Wangchuk made all the linage drawings in the rest of the Gönpa and painted the figures of the lineages of masters with his wife Sonam Palmo and we helped with the coloring and shading. Some years later I repainted outside the Gönpa with some other western painters. Then due to family reasons again I went back to Norway in 1997 and started to work at a painter in the theatre.
In 2004 my sister-in-law, who is also an artist, suggested that I start to take my painting more seriously. She was organizing a summer course that she called a “summer school of art” on the peninsula outside Oslo. So I decided to go there and do a weeks course with watercolor with a famous Norwegian artist who specialized in watercolor. And it just clicked with me. I had never worked with watercolor before. The work comes along as you go and you have to work fast. It’s not a matter of making a drawing and then filling in colors. I had to work on the whole page at the same time when it was all wet, but discovering that there are no rules I also found other ways myself to work and express and finally started to come out as a painter, I had hidden it so long.
The next year, the same artist gave a courses using oil paint on canvas. I took the course to refresh my capacities and did four paintings in a week! After the course I continued to work on portraits and nature.
The very first Buddhist image that I painted was Mandarava and after that Gomadevi. These two paintings were the very first in the series of watercolor paintings that I started 7-8 years ago. I’ve never considered myself to be a thangka painter. Real thangka painters often do the practice of the divinity that they are painting and they also do the eyes at the very end. I usually paint the eyes quite early on so that I can connect to the painting, sense the deity, also with practise sometimes.
During the years my friendship with Drugu Chögyal Rinpoche has been very important. He has inspired me a lot with my personal practise but also with his arts although I have never been his art student. He has given me a lot of material like Chinese brushes and different kinds of rice paper to paint on saying that to paint is my practise. I have also spent time through the years at his retreat center Tara Bhir where I have done retreats combined with painting.
I feel that I don’t have a choice – this is the way I can express myself and communicate. In my life I have burned or torn up quite a few paintings instead of putting them away. Now I’ve learned to put them away because there may be something there that I can get out later. It’s a communication with myself through paper.
Before I often used a model when painting but now I always paint whatever directly from my mind. I have always been free spirited and pretty stubborn, following my own way without considering a so-called “normal life” an option. I see art as a medium to communicate through emotions but also as a means to go beyond and express a natural appearance of nature in presence while painting.