It’s been twenty years since I began painting in oil. Before then I was a graphic designer/illustrator and before that I worked as a sign painter for a local shop, starting at age 22 in 1976. Along the way I also did calligraphy, messed with typography and developed a great fondness for historic decorative styles like medieval and celtic illumination and art nouveau. All of them gradually fell by the wayside as I focused on gaining competency as an oil painter who specialized in animals. But those interests were always lurking out there, sometimes with a feel of longing. But then it was back to the easel. However, a few years ago I started to toy with how I might bring some of that back into my work. I let it perk as I did three exhibitions in four years, the final one being last March, the “Wildlife Art: Field to Studio” group show in Connecticut. With time and mental space available at last, I realized that, for the time being, I’d said all I wanted to say about representing animals in realistic habitats/backgrounds.
I started to seriously work on what a new direction would be. What elements would it include? I wanted to emphasize pure design more and include decorative elements and calligraphy. For the former I would draw on my fifteen years of experience as a freelance graphic designer. For the other two I still have my library of reference books and I knew, starting with my second trip to Mongolia in 2006, that the vertical Uigher script that Chinggis Khan chose for the Mongols was still taught in the schools, used in advertising and had also become a respected and breathtaking art form. I have experience in brush lettering, but wasn’t sure that I wanted to try to learn “bichig”, which would require finding a teacher in Ulaanbaatar.
The solution to the lettering came last year at the end of the 4th WildArt Mongolia Expedition. Our guide, Batana, has a son who is a budding artist. When told about me he said he wanted to meet me. So one evening I and the two other participants were invited to dinner at Batana’s home. I met his son and looked through his work, which was very, very good for a self-taught fifteen year old. Before leaving Batana surprised us each with a gift, our names written out in bichig.
I came home and started thinking again about my “new direction” as I had come to call it. And it occurred to me that I now knew of a Mongolian calligrapher with whom I had a mutual contact. Batana and I had become friends on Facebook, so I messaged him to ask if his calligrapher friend would be interested in writing out some words for me. The answer came back “yes”. We worked out a price per word. I made up a list of ten and sent them to Batana. Within 48 hours I had ten large jpg images in my inbox. They were wonderful! I ended up getting two more batches of ten, so I have thirty words in bichig now and will be getting more. There was the matter of payment. My tour company, for whom the calligrapher, who uses the nom de guerre “Bichig Soyol” on Facebook, had worked in the past, was kind enough to let me do a credit card charge on their website. Then they called him and he came to the office to pick up the cash.
I was going to be going to the Susan K. Black Foundation workshop in Dubois, Wyoming in September and decided to try to have a couple new works for show there. The first one still needs some re-working, so this is the first finished piece in my new style.
Part of what drove me was the realization that my interest and passion is animals. To put them in a habitat means that, generally and by far, most of the painting will be landscape, not animal. And at this point, I want to focus on them. My new approach will let me use any and as much landscape as I want. Or none.
I’m taking my inspiration for the non-animal colors from landscape photos I’ve taken in Mongolia over the years. I have albums in Photos for “Warm”, “Cool” and Warm/cool” images. I’ve also got albums for design elements from monasteries, gers, patterns and symbols. I can mix and match all these elements as I wish. So now I’ve pulled all the threads together….animals, design, decorative motifs and lettering. And am I ever having fun!