Tales From The Field: An Ibex Day At Ikh Nart

I spent over an hour watching this group of ibex nannies and kids, six or seven in all; I’m working on a painting of them is this great setting of rocks and green grass

I was staying at the research camp at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in September of 2012. It’s one of the best places in Mongolia to see argali mountain sheep (Ovis ammon) and Siberian ibex (Capra siberica).

I went out walking one morning for a day of hiking around and it quickly turned into One of Those Days that wildlife watchers and artists dream of…nine separate sightings and three times spending an hour or more with an entire group.

About halfway through the morning I’d come along the top of the valley and was now walking down a draw towards the valley, intent on heading towards the western end rock formations and following a very narrow path left by various animals, both wild and domestic. I was maybe ten yards from where the draw joined up with a larger one which would drop down to the valley when, with no sound or warning, two ibex nannies came running at full speed around the corner of a rock straight at me! They pulled up fast, gave me a look and turned. One bolted back up the way she’d come and the other, which I now saw had a kid, ran off down the direction I intended to go. Everyone involved was equally surprised. Needless to say I didn’t get any photos of the actual encounter, but I can see it in my mind’s eye. all of us standing there for an instant looking at each other. No idea, of course, why they were running so hard and fast.

At the fork of the “y” where we all came together. I’d come in from the left, the ibex had come barreling around those rocks that are also on the left. I’m standing with my back to the draw I was heading for.

And, as you can imagine, my heart was pounding. They could have easily run right over me. But everyone was fine, they were gone, so I continued on down the draw. And, believe it not, there was the nanny and kid…

The nanny  was straight ahead of me

Amazingly, the ibex had stopped running, had gone up on a rock formation and was just standing there.

Siberian ibex nanny and kid

I walked forward a slow step at a time and got close enough for a few shots and her youngster. The photo above is not cropped. It was taken with my Nikon D750 and Nikon Nikkor 80-400 lens. She looked around a bit then she and her baby vanished on down the valley. I waited a bit to let them get ahead of me and be able to go where they wanted to go. I think she’d seen enough of me for one day.

Here is a far more common way of seeing ibex. One learns to spot them from quite a long distance because the pattern of head and horns doesn’t match the rocks.

This was the first sighting of the day, very typical, just a head above the rocks.

And here are some more photos of other sightings that day. I finally got down to the rocks on the south side of the western end of the valley and found a large group of nannies and kids, who I hung around with for over an hour.

There are seven ibex in this photo

Farther down the valley there was yet another group. A couple were wearing radio collars. Once they settled down I sat in plain view, photographing and sketching them.

There were a number of kids who were playing and jumping around on the rocks, which was great fun to watch

They finally moved off out of sight, but I’ve learned to hang around and wait. This time I was rewarded by having the whole group reappear and cross in a long line along the ridgetop, finally disappearing out of sight for good.

Ibex nanny group against the sky

There were a couple more long distance sightings of one or two ibex on my way back to camp, but they were either too far away or in the shade for photos anything other than “I saw them” shots, which I always take as a memory jog, if nothing else.

And that’s the tale of my “Ibex Day” which I will long remember.

Mongolia Monday- Images From Gandan Monastery

While I was in Ulaanbaatar this last trip, I spent a couple of mornings at Gandan Monastery sketching and taking photos. I thought that I would share some of my favorites with you of a truly special place that I always look forward to visiting when I’m in Mongolia.

Gandan’s main temple
Feeding the pigeons
Monk leaving morning service
Pigeons on a temple rooftop
Monk with prayer beads
Temple visitors circling an incense burner
Three monks
Stupa with pigeons

Two monks

Mongolia Monday- I Meet Mongol Artists (At Last!)

I’ve known since my first trips to Mongolia that art is an extremely important part of the culture, but had not found a way to meet or connect with any of the artists themselves. Until now.

Thanks to Janna, the Director of ArtiCour Gallery, who hosted my Ulaabaatar art event on September 22, I got my wish and then some. The gallery represents some of Mongolia’s most prominent and honored painters. Some of them were kind enough to come to the event and two invited me to visit their studios, which I did the next day. I had a wonderful time, thanks to Janna and Khaliunaa, who was one of my interpreters for the art event (along with Buyandelger) and who was nice enough to come along so that I could talk to the artists.

Although they did not have access to the West during what the Mongols call “socialist times”, many Mongolian artists traveled to Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Eastern Bloc countries to study in a variety of art academies and schools, so they were trained in classical, academic methods. They were limited in what was acceptable to paint, Impressionism apparently being totally off-limits, but still found ways to express themselves with great originality. With the coming of democracy in 1991, the artists of Mongolia became free to go wherever their artistic vision leads them.

The following is a “album” of my visit to the studios of six artists, all members of the Union of Mongolian Artists, which was founded in 1944 and has its own large, airy gallery space in the heart of Ulaanbaatar. I’ve been going there every trip since 2006 to see their exhibitions.

The studio photos and some of the art images were taken with my iPhone. Some of the other painting images I scanned from materials like brochures and booklets that the artists gave to me as gifts. I hope you enjoy this “studio tour” and you can be sure that there will be more to come in the future.

The artists are presented in the order in which I met them.

E. Sukhee, who I was told is one of the most eminent artists in Mongolia
Uulen Choloonii Nar by E. Sukhee
G. Dunburee; he was definitely the extrovert of the group
Dunburee’s famous painting “Ikh Khuree”, a scene of Ulaanbaatar in the 1920s, one of a series
Some of Dunburee’s location paintings
Fellow artist, Sosobaram, who stopped in for a short time, Dunburee and I
Sosobaram gave me a lovely booklet of his life and work. I scanned this and the following two images from it. Here is one of his drawings, I think from when he was a student.
Tsagaan Sarnai by B. Sosorbaram
Avto Portret 2006 (Self Portrait 2006) by B. Sosorbaram
S. Bayarbaatar
Talin Unselt by Bayarbaatar
Natsagdorj- one of the very few watercolor artists of his generation
Ikh Taigin Namar by Natsagdorj; he is from the northern part of Mongolia and at one time specialized in images of the Tsaatsan or “Reindeer People”.
Tugs-Oyun Sodnom
Ger District 2009 by Tugs-Oyun
Landscape in progress- Munkh
Landscape in progress- detail
Finally, Tugs-Oyun, me and Janna Kamimila, the Director of ArtiCour Gallery, who arranged this memorable afternoon with the artists, who couldn’t have been more welcoming

Mongolia Monday- Back Home And With Great Art News!

I arrived home from my seven week trip to Mongolia last Tuesday. I’ve been alternating catching up and doing….nothing or at least nothing more strenuous than watching a baseball game. The first order of business was to download and start categorizing the over 8000 images I shot on the trip. I always feel better when everything is safely on the hard drive, backed up to the remote Vault and visible in Aperture.

My final days in Ulaanbaatar were a bit of a whirlwind. The art event at ArtiCour Gallery was great! There was a steady stream of people all day, some of whom I knew. There was a lot of interest in the WildArt Mongolia Expedition and at least three artists expressed an interest in going next year. Many art students came by. The director of a Mongolian magazine which publishes articles on artists stopped in and said that they want to do an article on my and my work! Even more special to me personally, a number of very prominent Mongol artists attended, all of them members of the venerable Union of Mongolian Artists, which was founded in 1944.  Two of them invited me to visit their studios. But that will be a tale for another post.

Here’s a selection of photos taken at “American Artist Susan Fox-The WildArt Mongolia Expedition”, which was the first in ArtiCour’s new Visiting International Artists series.

Entrance to ArtiCour Gallery
Meeting E. Sukhee, one of Mongolia’s most famous artists
Watercolor demonstration
Bactrian camel. watercolor demo
Display of watercolors I did on location over two afternoons while I was visiting Hustai National Park, one of the three places in Mongolia where takhi (Przewalski’s horse) have been reintroduced
Meeting Dunburee, also a very prominent Mongol artist
Doing a fast sketching demo during my evening presentation
I couldn’t have had a better, more attentive group and they asked some great questions later on.
Meeting with Ekhbat Lantuu, President of the New Century Art Association, which promotes environmental issues through the arts.
My interpreters, Khailiunaa and Buyandelger, without whom I wouldn’t have been able to talk to anyone
Janna Kamimila, the Director of ArtiCour Gallery and my host

“American Artist Susan Fox-The WildArt Mongolia Expedition” At ArtiCour Gallery And An Album Of Field Sketches

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m going to be publicizing the WildArt Mongolia Expedition while I’m here. On September 22, I will be at ArtiCour Gallery, just off Sukhbaatar Square, from 11am to 7pm, meeting Mongolian artists and friends, talking about the Expedition, sharing images of my work and doing demonstrations of sketching, watercolor and iPad drawing. I’ve created a Facebook Event here.

I’ve been able to get in some good field sketching time this trip and thought I’d share a selection of what I’ve done so far. In August I went to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu and Arburd Sands. Once the Expedition in September was postponed, I needed to make other plans. I’ve spent six days at Jalman Meadows ger camp in the Khan Khentii Mountains and got back yesterday from four days back at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, this time staying at Nomadic Journeys’ Red Rock ger camp. Tomorrow morning I go to Hustai National Park for four days to observe, photograph and, with luck, sketch takhi.

I’m using a Moleskin Sketch journal with Sakura Micron .01 and .02 pens and water- soluble colored pencils.

Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, August:

Arburd Sands:

Jalman Meadows:

Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, September:

Mongolia Monday- Back From Ikh Nartiin Chuluu!

They almost always see you first. That’s a nanny on the left and a three year old billy on the right. You can tell their age from the ridges on the horns.

It was Siberian ibex this time at Ikh Nart. I’d see them on previous trips and always take photos, but my main goal has been seeing as many argali as possible. This year most of those were 20km or so to the northeast, so it was not possible to walk to where they were, at least for me, and I didn’t have a car and driver this time. I’m good for about 8-10km or so a day, especially if it’s hot. And was it hot! Probably close to 100F on a couple of days and not starting to cool off until around 10:30 at night. We also had a couple of rain storms move through during the eleven days that I was there, one with quite a light show.

The valley were the research camp is located. The ibex were up on the rocks down on the far left hand side

I walked down the valley the first day, followed a slope up to the top, sat down to sketch the scene in front of me, looked around and there behind me I saw that I was being watched by an ibex. Forget the sketching, the wildlife fieldwork was on!

Close-up view of the previous photo. That’s a nanny on the left and a young billy on the right.

It turned out there was a group of around a dozen nannies and kids, one of each wearing radio collars, who were hanging around two adjacent rock formations. The first day there were also two young billies, one two and one three years old, judging from the ridges on their horns. I saw and photographed them in that same location three out of the next four days, shooting hundreds of images, around 900 in all. So you know one subject I’ll be painting this winter….

Ibex nanny wearing radio collar

My main reason for going to Ikh Nart, though, was to have my annual visit with the members of Ikh Nart Is Our Future, the women’s felt craft collective that I support. I had a very good meeting with the director, Ouynbolor, during which we spoke (through a translator) about how things had gone since I last saw her and what she needed me to do for this next year. Coming up will be a larger quantity of the full-color brochures I and staff at the Denver Zoo had produced to explain the collective to visitors to the tourist ger camp. They will also now be produced in Mongolian, not just English. There were also matching product tags in three sizes. They worked well, but a much larger quantity of those will also be needed for next year.

Collective members at work on various tasks

I registered a url for the collective last year, knowing that they wanted to have a website. At the meeting we were able to work out the content and a way to communicate while it’s being put together.

Making felt; the wool is laid out in cross-wise layers, wrapped in a piece of tablecloth, thoroughly soaked with hot water and then saturated with soap, which is the ingredient that melds the fibers together
They got me into the act too, helping to work the soap into the wool

The really special part is that I was able to arrange to go to the soum center (county seat), Dalanjargalan, for a night and a day. I had always met the women at either the research camp or the tourist ger camp and felt that it would be very beneficial to spend at least a little time where they live (when they are not out in the countryside at their gers with their animals) and learn a little about their lives. I got a walking tour that included the local school and shop. I stayed in the home of one of the collective members. Had lunch at the home of another and, in the afternoon, around a dozen members gathered at “the office”, a little building that used to be a gas station, to process their wool, turn it into felt and also work on various items that they will sell. I saw the felt presses that I had helped them acquire in action, along with the good sewing scissors they had requested in 2009. They have quite an operation set up now and work very efficiently and with great care and conscientiousness. I shot both still photos and around an hour of video with my new Panasonic recorder, enough to put together a little YouTube video after I get home.

Collective member with lovely pictorial peice done completely with different colors of felt

My ride back to camp arrived later than expected, around 10:30pm, and the reason was that they had seen and captured two very young long-eared hedgehogs that were crossing the road in front of the car! Hedgehogs are one of the species being studied at Ikh Nart, by a graduate student named Batdorj. Within a kilometer of leaving Dalanjargalan, a third one dashed across the road, this time an adult darian hedgehog, and it was captured too, riding back to camp on the lap of one of the students wrapped in his jacket. I was able to get a lot of photos and also video the next evening before they had radio transmitters glued to their backs and were transported back out to the general area in which they’d been caught. And yes, there will definitely be hedgehog paintings, cards and prints coming up.

Darian hedgehog
Young long-eared hedgehog

I also had time to just wander around the reserve and see what there was to see and it turned out to be….wildflowers! The rains have been very good this year and everything is green, green, green. I’ve been to Ikh Nart in August before, but have never seen so many different flowers and so many that I had never seen there before. It was like walking through a huge flower garden.


Finally it was time to depart. We were taking the train overnight to Ulaanbaatar. Most of our luggage, except for what we needed for the night, was taken back to UB by car in the afternoon. The rest of us caught the 1:14 am train and arrived about 8:30 am. I had never done this before, but managed to get around five hours of decent sleep. We were taken back to Zaya’s Guesthouse, where we got showers and sorted our dirty clothes for laundering. The rest of the day was spent getting lunch and puttering around, catching up on emails. The next day I spent most of the afternoon doing a massive download and back up of all the photos and videos I’d shot.

Late afternoon on the north side of the valley

So now I’m at Zaya’s, which I highly recommend to anyone coming to Ulaanbaatar. The rooms are sparkling clean, there is free wifi and the location is very convenient, right off Peace Ave. not far from the State Department Store. There is a common living room with a very comfortable sectional sofa and a full kitchen for the use of guests.

I did see argali a couple of times

As for the WildArt Mongolia Expedition, I’m now working on the last bits of planning and arranging, some things having changed since I left the US. Flexibility is important when doing things in Mongolia. It makes some people really angry when something doesn’t go right or on schedule (so this is not a country they should visit), but I’ve found that it creates possibilities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

I’ll be in UB for the next 2-3 days, then I’m hoping for a long weekend at a ger camp I’ve stayed at before. Stay tuned!

Mongolia Monday- A Few Last Notes

First night out on two-week camping trip, July 2010

If everything goes as planned, I will soon be in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Four days in town and then off to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve for eleven days. I’ll post when I can. In the meantime, here’s a few photos of favorite camping spots from past trips.

I’m almost packed, just the roll-on to finish, mostly the camera equipment. I’ve developed a packing list over the years that definitely reduces the stress, plus most basics are now available in UB if needed.

I did make a final purchase. Everyone is different in what little things make travel more comfortable. For me, it’s sleeping on the same surface every night (Thermarest pad), having a real pillow ( a cut down bed pillow that fits in the roll-on), a hot coffee-like drink first thing in the morning (coffee packets, ceramic mug and immersion heater) and, this time, two decent sized travel towels.

A real favorite; camping at Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2010

I’ve used a pair of ok cloth ones for at least six years. They were some of the first travel towels on the market, at least at REI, and worked ok. They dried fast and rolled up pretty small. But they developed a kind of “chalky” feel and weren’t big enough to really wrap up my wet hair. One last trip to the local outdoor store and I now have two 20×40″ microfiber towels from Sea To Summit. Even though they are bigger, they roll up smaller than the old ones. Not cheap, but after bumping up against the limitations of the others, I finally decided the heck with it and got something better. A test at home was successful, so it looks like I’m set.

Camping on the steppe, August 2011; beautiful, quiet and classically Mongolian

Art Warm-up For Mongolia; An Album Of Studies

Gers north of Bayanhongor, Hangai Mountains, July 2010; watercolor on Annigoni 100% cotton paper

My intention is to do at least one sketch a day this trip. So I wanted to be in a groove before I leave. I also needed to refine my portable art studio. So I spent yesterday working from previous trip photos as if I was at the scene, reliving a little of what it was like to be there and imagining having just enough time during a lunch stop to get out the paint and do a quick study. So none of these took more than about 20 minutes.

The idea is to work fast, get an impression down and move on. Here’s what I’m taking this year:

My portable field studio

The bag is a re-purposed point and shoot camera bag and it’s turned out to be perfect. In the front is a roll of drafting tape, kneaded rubber erasers, extra mechanical pencil leads and a pencil sharpener. Next pocket back is a set of water soluable Derwent colored pencils. In the back are Sakura Micron pens in a variety of sizes and colors, a couple of draughting pencils, a couple of mechanical pencils, a sandpaper pad, blending stumps, a tube of white gouache and a watercolor brush that breaks down to half its length.

The watercolor set is from Yarka. I use napkins, slightly used, from restaurants, for rags. Extra brushes go in the bamboo carrier. Water for painting goes in the collapsible plasticized cloth “bucket”.

Gobi landscape, July 2010: watercolor on vellum bristol; I ultimately decided against taking the bristol paper in favor of more watercolor paper

The support is a piece of lightweight foamcore. The drafting tape, which is lightly adhesive, doesn’t pull up the paper surface.

For paper I’ll have my Moleskin sketchbook journal and a stack of 7×7″ watercolor paper cut down from a pad that I got many years ago in England, brand unknown, and, so that I can work on a toned surface (inspired by Thomas Moran’s location studies of Yellowstone that he did while traveling with the Hayden Expedition) a pad of Anigoni 100% cotton toned paper, which happily takes a variety of media.

Here’s some more of my favorites from yesterday, all done from photos that I took on previous trips to Mongolia:

Gull, Orog Nuur, Gobi, July 2010; trying out the watercolor paper; I haven’t done any watercolor work at all for a long time, so needed to figure it out again.
Gobi, July 2010; did this one in both watercolor, shown here, and the vellum bristol to see which I liked better; both work, but the watercolor paper allows for more edge variety.
River valley north of Bayanhongor, Hangai Mountains, July 2010; Two studies on the Anigoni toned paper; watercolor with white gouache
Horses at Gun-Galuut, August 2011; I wanted to practice doing animals before I was sitting in front of the real thing. Watercolor, Micron pen; I started with the watercolor, then did the penwork, then went back and knocked in the shadow areas and the water; about ten minutes
Horses at Gun-Galuut, August 2011; watercolor and Micron pen on w/c paper; each about 15 minutes
Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2010; lots of rocks where I’m going, so did a couple of studies; Notice that it’s not necessary to finish everything to the same point, especially when time is limited; watercolor
Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, August 2011; rocks with an argali; watercolor