Now, at the Crow Museum of Asian Art of the University of Texas at Dallas, a new exhibition of Tibetan prayer flags designed by seventh-grade students at St. John’s Episcopal School, explores the ancient cultural significance of their designs and labor-intensive process behind the muslin hand-dyed flags.
Wind Horse: A Collaboration of World Religion and Visual Arts – An Exhibition by the St. John’s Episcopal School students will be on display through March 30, 2022, and is included in free general admission. The exhibition was curated by Amy Hofland, Senior Director of the Crow Museum of Asian Art.
As an experiential convergence of their curriculum in both world religions and visual arts, St. John’s students explored Tibetan Buddhism and the ancient tradition of prayer flags – their meaning and purpose. In this context, students designed and hand-dyed their own prayer flags to reflect their individual interpretations of this real-world art form. At the conclusion of the exhibition, students and their families will celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year, on March 3, 2022, at the Crow Musuem, and then the flags will be returned to St. John’s to adorn the main entrance for the entire School community to enjoy.
With a distinctive vision for this collaboration, Meshea Matthews, St. John’s Episcopal School Head of School, reflects, “We are elated to have the opportunity to partner with the Crow Museum of Asian Art on this exhibition that is emblematic of our mission and purpose. Throughout the evolution of this process, our students have had many ‘A-ha!’ moments that have helped them better analyze the interconnectedness of art and religion. As a result, they have gained a deeper understanding of world religions, cultures, and arts, and broadened their minds through this real-world experience.”
In Tibet, the tradition of pressing prayers onto cloth flags is an art form that has lasted more than a thousand years and is one of the earliest forms of printing in the Himalayas. The flags are often placed outside of homes or monasteries and are believed to bring happiness, longevity, and prosperity to those who create them and to all the world. Each prayer is believed to take flight on the heels of the Wind Horse, Lung-ta, who dispatches messages to the four sacred corners of the earth. Tibetan prayer flags are arranged in a particular order and each of the five colors represents one of the elements in the Buddhist tradition:
- Blue for Sky
- White for Wind or Air
- Red for Fire
- Green for Water
- Yellow for Earth
Health and harmony arise from a balance of these five elements. As the flags blow in the wind over time, they tatter and unravel. Each thread that comes loose, flutters and flies away is a prayer going out to the world -- spreading blessing and positivity. The prayers often include wishes for peace, compassion, strength, protection, and wisdom. As the flags dissolve in the wind, they are a visual representation of one of the core teachings of Buddhism: impermanence. The Buddha taught that we have a temporary hold on this Earth and the sooner we face our finitude, the better – recognizing that out of death comes rebirth. To gain anything of value, you must lose it.
Within the Tibetan Buddhism religion, the combination of the five colors is said to create a balanced mindset, and the flags are viewed as sacred symbols. Traditionally the flags are hung in open-air so that they send the prayers into the wind to spread goodwill and compassion for eternity. As wind passes over the flags, it is believed that the air is purified and sanctified by the prayers. Flags are viewed as sacred symbols, and new flags are continually hung with existing flags as they acknowledge life's changes and recognize that all beings are part of an everlasting existence. It is believed that when prayer flags fade and blow away thread by thread, the prayers become a part of the universe.
As a part of their exploration of core Buddhist principles, St. John’s Episcopal School students studied, designed, and created sets of Tibetan Prayer Fags using traditional Tibetan flag colors/elements and stringing order. From that starting point, some students chose to use Buddhist symbols and prayers on their flags. Other students selected wording designs to reflect their own beliefs, values, and traditions.
St. John’s Chaplain and World Religions Teacher Shannon Newsom notes, “As part of the St. John’s World Religions curriculum, students are introduced to Buddhism, including Vajrayana Buddhism, which is more commonly known as Tibetan Buddhism. Students then commenced a broad exploration of Buddhist teachings, sacred writings, rites of passage, places of worship, rituals and art forms like sand mandalas and pray flags. To move beyond a purely abstract and academic understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, students immersed themselves in local experiences through conversations with Tibetan monks and through integrative endeavors like their prayer flag project. These real-life lived experiences transform students’ hearts as well as their minds.”
Students created their flags during the pandemic as an integration project between religious studies and art. Using muslin, which has ancient origins and a rich history, students hand-dyed the cloth in a similar method used by Buddhist Monks. Once the muslin dried and was cut into rectangles, each student designed five prayer flags that reflected their expression about each element. They scribed thoughtful passages and quotes and created drawings to represent their interpretations. Students’ well-wishes and prayers reflect their care and consciousness during this unprecedented time in our local and national life. As students prayed and meditated through the design process, they held their friends, families, and the wider Dallas community close to their hearts. Today, St. John’s students are honored to share with you, through the generosity of the Crow Museum, their hopes and dreams for a more decent, kind, loving and peaceful world.
St. John’s teacher and Artist in Residence Donna Knox notes, “Intertwining the students’ exposure to Tibetan Buddhism with one of the most sacred art expressions enlightened students’ awareness of their environment and created a greater understanding and appreciation of humanity within their hearts.”