Devotional Art Thangka Raises Seed Bead Awareness


“Highest Heaven” Beaded Thangka by Russ Ellis

A curiosity concerning time and its relation to art exists for many people.

Where do you go when you tap into the place of creativity? How long does it take to get there?

Most artists know “flow” and covet the state because from flow, remarkable evolves. As the artist accesses something deeper in his/her self, magic happens. Discussing and identifying the process takes more effort.

For Russ Ellis, art developed through religious belief. He began work on his first thangka, a traditional Tibetan story-telling scroll, to practice patience.

A nundra, or 108,000 repetition practices, dictates the size of his project: 15 square feet.

Each stitch consists of picking up three beads on a thin needle, going back down through the canvas and up again in the center of the middle bead from underneath.

As he stitches, he practices a mantra, or little prayer. Through “right-now presence” Russ builds a foundation to synchronize body, speech and mind. His art is his way of being.

“The goal of the nundra is to do one repetition perfectly coordinating body, speech and mind. If all three aspects are synchronized, you create something harmonic.”

Some 35 years since his first beading effort, Russ nears completion of his eighth beaded thangka.

“Highest Heaven,” the story of enlightenment, contains about 450,000 beads, measures three feet by five feet high, and weighs nearly 17pounds or 7.5 kilo.

Even though he can point to nearly 16,000 hours of beadwork, (for comparison, that’s well over 1,000 12-hour-days) Russ doesn’t refer to himself as a bead master.

Yet, he’s learned much about his medium of tiny, size 11 seed beads. He communicates through bead type and placement, choosing colors and finishes to enhance his art, never ripping.

“I commit to each bead,” Russ says, “three beads at a time. It’s a process of relax, trust, do it, and repeat.”

He shares that messages are communicated to viewers in addition to those communicated to him during the course of the project.

His wish for healing benefits for the viewers leads to placement of his pieces in Buddhist temples.

One of Russ’s thangkas is in the collection of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. His Holiness helped Russ realize the importance of being the “best Buddhist,” the “best Christian,” the “best Muslim” …the best at whatever religious belief one can be.

In part because of that encounter, Russ plans to bead the Virgin Guadalupe in his next thangka.

As he puts it, all devotional art presents teachings that resonate, regardless of spiritual affiliation.

“People need to look at beads as a way of calming down,” he said. “Beads are common with all cultures through the ages. They’re part of our human family.”

If you’re looking for bead teachings, you can begin simply with these steps:

    1. Practice mindfulness as you thread your needle.
    2. Enjoy the balance opportunities presented by working with both your hands.
    3. Pick up three beads, lay them down in place, pull the thread through and come up from underneath in the second bead to complete the stitch. Repeat.
    4. See, feel and present yourself from a place of relaxation.
    5. Keep it simple.

I stitched three beads on the thangka when I met with Russ, so I’m now part of the collective 200 souls who beaded on this piece. It’s a bit of communal creativity that caused me to think differently about art.

Imagine 2,000 hours focused on a single lesson, what information would you derive from such an effort?

Will you use your beads differently as a result?