For Phil Karl, creating tormas is not just a matter of artistry but a matter of spirituality. His website, tormas.biz, is a digital portfolio and direct-to-consumer platform for the tormas he custom-creates from his Boulder, Colorado home studio. The website showcases sculptures of various sizes that look colorful, ornate, and beautiful. Tormas are meant to reside on a mediational shrine as an offering, or as a symbol of a particular deity, according to Karl’s website.
“I create tormas for the ritual practice of Buddhist meditation following traditional Tibetan guidelines,” say Karl. “Custom-made tormas following the very precise requirements of the tradition are hard to find. This business, and the service I provide, are unique.” He trained in the traditional three-year retreat at Gampo Abbey, Nova Scotia, and has been creating these tormas for well over 20 years.
For Phil Karl, his brand and mission are simple. “I provide a highly specialized product, custom designed, compliant with principles of a millennia-old tradition, for modern spiritual practitioners. The sculptural objects I create are needed by, and support the spiritual journey of, Western practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism.”
In 2001 he created a website so he can display his creations to the world. He chose the .biz domain to convey his site is both an educational resource and place to purchase tormas. Says Karl: “The .com and .net were taken, and .biz made sense given that it is a business. 25 years ago or so there were not the array of extensions available there are now. I like the pragmatic quality of biz connected to tormas.”
He remains a direct-to-consumer business and makes all the tormas on commission via the website. Here, Karl gives us a behind-the-scenes look on what it takes to create and sell his works-of-art. The roots of the practice of offering torma are ancient, originating in India some millennia ago. But Karl believes he can share the beauty and meaning of the torma sculptures to a modern, Western, and digital audience via tormas.biz.
Where do you create the tormas?
I work in my home studio when I make the tormas.
How long does it take to make one torma?
The tormas are elaborate, which takes a lot of time. They vary in complexity and detail, but not many of them are what you’d call simple. A single torma can easily take 20 hours or more.
Can you walk us through a typical creation process?
I sometimes make molds from a rubberized material for casting the larger forms. I cast the forms using Hydrostone (a very hard plaster). Most of the parts and pieces I make from a polymer clay called Sculpey. I use a variety of paints, largely acrylics. The main adhesive used is basically a nontoxic white glue (Aleens). I finish some parts with a glaze called Modpodge.
What are your top tips for staying creative and true to your art?
Most people’s art is self-expressive and creative in an individualistic sort of way. This form–torma-making–follows traditional guidelines. The materials are modern but the forms, colors, style follow a millenia-old tradition. If one is pursuing a very traditional and ancient form like this, I’d say bring your training and inspiration as a Western artist to the task. But understand thoroughly the traditional form and style of what you’re doing and respect that as primary.
Why is it important for you to create a website that not only showcases your artworks but provides education about Buddhism as well?
It’s important to present context. These sculptural objects exist as part of something much larger and more important than the objects themselves. The tormas are symbolic. Understanding the symbolism and the logic of Buddhism is the only way the tormas make sense. They have power, in a sense, to a practitioner. Otherwise they are just trinkets, chachkas.