Meet Bhutan's cerebral palsy 'foot' artist Pema Tshering

Email

He was abandoned after his parents found out he had cerebral palsy. But a chance meeting with the Queen Mother turned his life around.

Pema Tshering uses only his feet to create artwork. (Source: Bhutan Times)

By Kinley Yangden | Bhutan Times

He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was a child, but that has not stopped artist Pema Tshering from being one of the most recognised painters and wood-carvers in Bhutan.

Using only his feet, Pema holds a chisel and hammer, nimbly carving his way through a piece of wood as he tells us his story about being abandoned at birth, encountering the Queen Mother who subsequently adopted him, and how he eventually became an artist.

Paralysed from the hip up, the 31-year-old artist has lived almost his entire life using his feet as his hands. Despite his handicap, Pema has managed to eke out a living selling his creations at a small shop set up inside the compounds of Simply Bhutan museum in Thimphu.

During our visit there, someone jokingly told us that Pema is a celebrity in Bhutan. And indeed so, for the artist has not only managed to create beautiful artwork – mostly religious art – but also once represented Bhutan in the 2005 Paralympics as a national archer.

His endurance and strength despite his physical and emotional challenges is a testament to the human spirit, and his story deserves to be told to the world.

Abandoned by his parents when he was 6

Except that he was born in Mongar district to farmer parents, Pema does not reveal much about his early childhood. The one thing he has to tell was that he was abandoned at the tender age of six when his parents found out that he had cerebral palsy.

But it wasn’t just this impairment that they had to deal with – Pema also had congenital deformities in his spinal column, resulting in limited use of his legs. 

Left to his grandparents’ care, Pema started learning how to use his feet as his hands. For 20 years, he lived in the village making bows and arrows out of bamboo. Education was out of the question.

Then, came a visitor who’d change his life forever.

Meeting the Queen Mother

When Pema was 18, Her Majesty the Queen Mother Tshering Pem Wangchuk paid a visit to his village, where she chanced upon him.

When asked how he felt meeting the Queen Mother, Pema told Bhutan Times that he was “very happy and excited” to see her.

“She asked if there was anything that I wanted. I told her I wanted to go to school. I didn’t want money or anything else,” said Pema.

The Queen Mother then sponsored his education at Bhutan’s renowned art school Institute of Zorig Chusum in Thimphu. It was here where Pema learnt how to carve and paint. The decision to pursue arts was a practical one.

“I didn’t mind doing any job but I didn’t think I was fit to do some jobs, as I didn’t go to school and didn’t have knowledge. So I decided to choose to learn carving and painting,” said Pema, who now sells his works at a small craft workshop, which was set up by the Queen Mother at Simply Bhutan.

 Cost of Pema’s works range from 600 Nu for a small wooden craftwork to 25,000 Nu for a thangka painting. By selling his works, he is able to make at least US$100 a month.

When asked if he’s happy with what he’s doing, Pema says he usually is, but sometimes felt like there was a lot of work to do, as it takes about three days for him to create a small piece of wooden artwork to one week for bigger ones. Thangka paintings take around two to three weeks to create.

Looking at his creations and paintings, one would not know they were done by a person who lacked the capability to use his hands. Pema’s works are intricate and challenging: Ranging from dragons to floral patterns and to the Eight Auspicious Signs, Pema has sold a number of his creations. And on one occasion, also exhibited his works in New Delhi in 2010.

Supporting his parents

He’s done well in his line of work that he now supports his parents financially – a responsibility he feels he has to take on despite their decision to abandon him when he was a child.

Pema shared his philosophy behind this: “I want to help my parents because if you don’t help your parents, it’s like disrespecting them. If you don’t respect your parents, whatever work you do, you’ll be unsuccessful in life.” 

He is in the midst of building a two-storey house for them in Mongar, which he says is almost completed.

“I’m not angry with them (my parents). I’m just sad. I’ll be happier if they had put me in school, rather than abandoning me,” said Pema, when asked if he bears any anger or resentment towards his parents.

He also said that his parents are now “very proud” of him.

Participated in 2005 Bhutanese Paralympics 

Besides establishing a career in art, Pema also participated in the 2005 Bhutanese Paralympic as an archer.

“I didn’t get a medal but I received a certificate of participation,” laughed Pema, who pointed at the framed certificates hanging in his workshop.

He added that he still plays archery for fun and hopes to participate in an upcoming Paralympic game again.

Big dreams

Despite his predicament, Pema has big dreams he hopes to achieve.

“I want to be an art teacher. I don’t have any students now but I plan to teach,” said Pema.

He added that he hopes to work in New York for a few years before returning to Bhutan to teach art and start his own carving business.

While it has been challenging and tiring for him, Pema said that the most difficult time of his life was when he did not receive any education. He said would have liked to study to become a teacher or a minister.

“Why a minister?” we asked, to which Pema laughed and responded: “So that I can help the needy.”

Pema Tshering’s “Foot Craft” workshop is located at Simply Bhutan, Thimphu.

 


Related Posts

Handicraft Shops Do Lucrative Business

Handicraft business in Paro is lucrative. The profit margin was very high. Although the same remains true now,...

Aug 21, 2017 15:17

A Japanese GNH Factory Employs the Intellectually Disabled

Yasuhiro Ohyama, former CEO of NRI, advocates a society where everyone could work. It is the society where everyone...

Nov 28, 2017 10:29

Weavers Recognised for Promoting Arts and Crafts

The 16th National Design and Art competition was organised in five different categories – gho (weaving), kira (weaving),...

Nov 04, 2017 07:29

What are the endangered mammals of Bhutan?

Currently, Bhutan is home to nine endangered mammals, with one being critically endangered.

Jul 23, 2021 16:30

All you need to know about De-suups (Guardians of Peace) in...

Whenever there’s a disaster, trouble, or a need, the guardians of peace are deployed, almost like magic.

Jul 02, 2021 10:35

Kidu: Bhutan's benevolent fund that has aided thousands of...

Bhutan’s kidu has ensured that children are educated, the sick receive proper care, the poor are aided, the media is...

Jun 24, 2021 11:10

Latest

News

What are the endangered birds of Bhutan?

Bhutan is home to 26 endangered birds. One of these birds even has its own festival.

Jul 19, 2021 10:35

Removing Bhutan’s import taxes on sanitary products is crucial for period equity

What might elimination of the 30 percent import tax on sanitary supplies mean for Bhutanese citizens?

Jul 12, 2021 10:48

Features

What are the endangered mammals of Bhutan?

Currently, Bhutan is home to nine endangered mammals, with one being critically endangered.

Jul 23, 2021 16:30

All you need to know about De-suups (Guardians of Peace) in Bhutan

Whenever there’s a disaster, trouble, or a need, the guardians of peace are deployed, almost like magic.

Jul 02, 2021 10:35

Business

What are the entrepreneurship programmes and initiatives available in Bhutan?

The Bhutanese government has introduced all kinds of initiatives to promote entrepreneurship. Even school kids are groomed to innovate,...

Jun 22, 2021 16:37

Support authentic Bhutanese handicrafts by local artisans

Whether you are interested in artisanal Bhutanese handicrafts or boutique sourced products with contemporary touch, the incredible...

Mar 25, 2021 12:09

Sports

Bhutan competed in the Olympics through historic qualification

Since 1984, Bhutan has been competing in the Olympics via universality invitation, but not the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Jul 29, 2021 17:06

What are the traditional sports of Bhutan?

The Bhutanese have a variety of traditional sports. Some test your aim and skills, whereas with others, it’s about pure brute strength.

Jul 13, 2021 11:15

Travel

Travel to Bhutan: experience the charm of Paro district

Paro district receives the highest volume of travellers annually. It's also easily one of tourists favourite places in Bhutan.

Jul 14, 2021 11:20

Travel to Bhutan: attractions in the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu

Western Bhutan is the perfect region to learn more about the beautiful kingdom for those who are visiting Bhutan for the first time.

Jun 29, 2021 12:58

Lifestyle

How to identify female or male Bhutanese names?

Organizational Psychologist Joyce E. A. Russell observed, “A person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and...

Jul 09, 2021 13:19

Where to satisfy your momo cravings in Thimphu, Bhutan

You can't go wrong with momo. It's almost always the answer to a growling stomach and social events.

Jun 28, 2021 11:20

COVID-19

Bhutan is leading in the vaccination race

“Bhutan is now a beacon of hope for the region, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives and devastated families." - Dr Will...

Jul 28, 2021 12:01

Bhutan, with a leading vaccination rate in the region, commenced its second vaccination drive

Bhutan's second nationwide vaccination campaign will be held from July 20 - July 26, 2021.

Jul 21, 2021 11:05

Subscribe to our newsletter

Never miss out on new happenings and news stories!

Download Daily Bhutan Mobile App

Connecting with us just got easier!