With her many bracelets and brass earrings jangling through the Reality Room Gallery in Georgetown, painter Maura Moynihan stops to consider a color print of Nam Tso, a salt lake nestled high in the Himalayas. “It’s the most beautiful placethe air, the lightit’s incredible,” she says.
The Reality Room’s show of paintings and prints inspired by the Tibetan diaspora brings together the work of Tibetan refugees with paintings by Moynihan, who fashions her adept, earnest reproductions by using a simple watercolor technique she learned in classes at the Corcoran School of Art. The painter, 40, has worked on and off for the Tibetan cause since she befriended Tibetan refugees while living in Delhi as a teenager, when her father, New York’s Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was ambassador to India.
One of the watercolors in her Reality Room show depicts Potala Palace in Lhasa, which was the palace of the Dalai Lama until his 1959 exile. It’s one of the few religious structures spared by the Mao Zedong-led invasion of the Himalayan kingdom in 1949. According to Moynihan, 90 percent of Tibetan religious architecture was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. “It’s sickening to think how much was lost,” she says.
Moynihan frequently visits Tibet to write reports for Refugees International, and she is often harassed or followed by Chinese soldiers. To evade them, she’s adopted a trick borrowed from Winston Churchill, who during World War II sent painter-spies to infiltrate Nazi territories. Moynihan installs herself and her watercolors (“my cover,” she calls them) in towns or settlements. Chinese militiamen quickly tire of watching her dabbing brush to paper, so they leave her in peace. “It’s boring to watch someone paint,” she says.
She stops to contemplate Tibetan exile Gongkar Gyatso’s depiction of the Path to Enlightenment. The painter, who subscribed to the Hindi faith at age 15, has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989, when her Hindi guru died. Hamming it up in an Irish brogue, Moynihan jokes: “On a good day, I’m about here,” pointing midway along the upward path, where the black elephant symbolizing the tormented self has attained a significant state of purity. “On a bad day,” she laughs, pointing to the bottom of the frame, “I’m down herenot even on the Path at all!”
Her father supports her passion for the Tibetan cause, though “he says my life would be simpler if I was working for a high-powered lobbying firm,” she explains. “But this issue seems so clearly about right and wrong….To me it’s really obvious.”