My Favorite Artists: Prehistoric Times

I’m starting a new ongoing series of posts about my personal favorite artists and why they are. Art goes back a very long way. The current oldest known work of art is 40,000 year old cave paintings of wild cattle in Borneo. Animal art! You can read more about that here.

I’ve not personally visited any of the caves with wall paintings, but I have seen a number of sites in Mongolia with pictographs on outdoor rocks. My best photos of, and favorite, rock art is at Hogno Han Nature Reserve which is about five hours west of Ulaanbaatar. It’s on the west side of a small valley so it faces east. It’s easy to walk right up to it from the road. But sometimes there’s “local traffic” to get past first.

Domestic Mongol horses on a rainy day
Pictographs are below the blue arrow

I love that long before “civilization” began people expressed themselves through art and in a way that has survived for us to see it today. The creative drive has clearly been with us for a very, very long time. We all have that capacity. It’s just a matter of finding out the best way for us to express our own creativity, whether it’s painting, crochet, cooking, singing, sketching, sewing, whatever appeals to you. It’s about the joy of doing it, not the result. How do you express your creativity? Let me know in the comments!

In this image, from left to right is an ibex with a human below (see detail below); what looks to be an elk-like grazer; below that what might be a small group of horses or gazelles, then a very clear argali sheep; and finally to the right and a bit above is what I think is a wild bovine
Our relationship with animals goes back a very long way.

The WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Part 14: The Incomparable Gachen Lama Khiid

The old temple
The old temple.

I had first come to Gachan Lama Khiid on my two-week camping trip in 2010. I had never heard of it and was completely enchanted. So when the idea was floated about taking a different route back for at least part of the return to Ulaanbaatar, I thought of coming back and sharing this place. No one knows about it, really, not even many Mongols. If you google it, my previous post from 2010 is pretty much what comes up.

I think the old temple, the only structure besides the main gate which was left after the destruction of the monasteries in the late 1930s, is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. This time we were able to talk to the lamas and a staff person who live and work and worship there and learn more about it. A new temple has been built and we were allowed to enter and take photos in it and also the old temple.

The old temple is badly in need of restoration. One side is so unstable that it is propped up with timbers. There are a large number of exquisite works of art on the walls, most of them in need of attention. One can see areas of wood rot in parts of the structure. The monks came up with a restoration plan and sent it to the appropriate government ministry two years ago, but have not yet gotten a response. I promised them that I would see what I could do. This post is partly to keep that promise, but I will also be following up once I’m back in Mongolia this June (there was no time left last year and the monks are almost impossible to contact due to poor mobile phone reception). I documented as much of the damage as I could and have posted some of those images here as reference and to show some of what needs to be done. Honestly, this place should be on the list of World Heritage Sites.

A final note: The monastery is not set up for visitors. I’m not sure what facilities are available in the soum center nearby. If you go, plan to have everything you need and be respectful. Namaste.

We arrived after dark and it was very cold. And going to get colder as we were up in the Hangai Mountains almost due north of Bayanhongor. People were found and we were not only given permission to camp right on the monastery grounds, but allowed the use of one of the outbuildings for cooking and eating. The next morning we emerged to morning light that cast a magical glow on the temples…

The old temple
The old temple.

The surviving gate
The surviving gate; a new enclosure is being built around the complex.

Stupas with the river in the background.


The "kitchen"
The “kitchen”. Soyoloo, our cook, and Tseegii, our guide, making breakfast for everyone.

Entrance to the "kitchen"
Entrance to the “kitchen”.

Corner detail
Corner detail showing the delicate fretwork.

Blue elephant
Blue elephant.

Blue guardian
Blue guardian.

Carved and painted lotus
Carved and painted lotus.

Doorframe carving
Doorframe carving.

Corner animal and bell
Corner animal and bell.

Schematic of monastery before most of it was destroyed.
Schematic of monastery before most of it was destroyed.

Sign over door in three languages: Tibetan, Mongol bichig script, Chinese
Sign over door in three languages: Tibetan, Mongol vertical script, Chinese.

Buddhist symbol set of deer and wheel over door
Buddhist symbol set of deer and wheel over door. It is said that the first creatures to come to the Buddha when he sat under the Bodhi Tree to teach were two deer.

Timbers supporting one corner of the old Temple
Timbers supporting one corner of the old Temple.

Wall painting.
Wall painting.

Wall paintings.
Wall paintings.

Old temple interior.
Old temple interior.

Main altar in the old temple.
Main altar in the old temple.

Wall paintings.
Wall paintings.

Lama throne.
Lama throne.

Altar figurines.
Altar figurines.


Wall paintings.
Wall paintings.

Wall painting of the monastery in the winter. This one was everyone's favorite, including me.
Wall painting of the monastery in the winter. This one was everyone’s favorite, including me.

Door panel painting at the interior entrance to the old temple. Also a favorite.
Door panel painting at the interior entrance to the old temple. Also a favorite.

Altar in the new temple.
Lama throne in the new temple.

Ritual objects.
Ritual objects.

Temple bowl
Temple incense offering bowl.

The main altar in the new temple.
The main altar in the new temple.

Another view of the altar.
The right side of the altar.

A very old lock and keys.
A very old lock and keys.

Monk showing us a ceremonial staff.
Monk showing us a ceremonial staff.

Old table with stunning lacquer work.
Old table with stunning raised lacquer work.

Old door latch.
Old door latch.

The old temple.
The old temple. Unfortunately, we had to leave before the sun got to the front. But at the link above there’s a photo of it in full light.

The new temple.
The new temple.



Crossing The Language Barrier In Mongolia

The two horses
The two horses at the top are Magvandorj showing me the difference between Mongol horses (left) and western horses (right). You can see how we were working on terms for things in both languages also.

On August 14, Oidviin Magvandorj, one of the artists who will be going on the WildArt Mongolia Expedition, came to the National Museum to sit with me in the afternoon while my exhibition was open.

He has a little English and I have a little Mongolian, but as artists we easily kept a running conversation going for almost four hours. I had my MacBook Air with me which has a lot of photos from my past two trips still on it. They were the springboard for these 6×4″ notebook pages, which I decided were too interesting and charning not to share.

Magvandorj was looking at some of my ibex photos from last year when he did the little compositional sketches. The lower left sketch is an example of the type of stylized representations that one sees in ancient Mongolian rock pictographs. He had also asked me about the camera equipment that I use. “neg” is Mongolian for “one”.

I had showed him
I had showed him the main reference photo for “Zuniin Odor (Summer Day)” and that led to an illustrated tutorial of the terms for some of the parts of Mongol horse tack, something I’ve been wanting to learn more about.

The WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Introducing The Mongol Artists: Oidoviin Magvandorj


Magvandorj was born in 1952 in Tsagaan Khairkhan, Uvs Aimag.

He attended/graduated from the State Pedalogical University in 1980

From 1972 to 1976 he was an member of the Union of Mongolian Artists branch in Uvs Aimag

From 1980 to 1990 he was an artist at the Musical Drama Theater, Uvs Aimag

Since 1990 he has been a freelance artist and a member of the Union of Mongolian Artists in Ulaanbaatar since 2000.

Great Empire of Mongolia

Great Empire of Mongolia

He has exhibited his work since 1977, both in Mongolia and internationally, participating in exhibitions in Paris and Mexico. His work has been in Union of Mongolian Artists exhibitions since 2005.

His awards include:
1987- “Mongolian National Costumes”- First Prize
1987- “Concert of Many Nationalities”- Best Artist
1988- Festival of Raduga- Leading Prize
2008- Leading Cultural Worker, Ministry of Education and Science



Altan Argamj

Altan Argamj

The WildArt Mongolia Expedition-Introducing the Mongol Artists: Tugsoyun Sodnom

It gives me great, great pleasure to introduce the two Mongol artists who will be going on the WildArt Mongolia Expedition! I met them when I was in Ulaanbaatar last year and am very excited that they have signed on. Them are well-known in Mongolia and deserve to be known in the United States too.

Today, I would like you to meet Tugsoyun Sodnom. Next will be Oidoviin Magvandorj.


Tugsoyun was born in 1955.

She graduated from the Fine Art College, Ulaanbaatar in 1974 and from the Surikov Institute of Fine Art, Moscow, Russia, in 1980.

She has been exhibiting her work since 1974, both in Mongolia and internationally, participating in exhibitions in Bulgaria, Japan, Russia, Japan, India, Germany, Australia, Korea, the United States and London. Since 1974 she has participated in all of the Union of Mongolian Artists’ exhibitions.

Since 1974 she has designed and/or illustrated over 100 books.

Gobi Camels

Gobi Camels

Her awards include:
1985- Annual Prize of the Union of Mongolian Artists
1988- Honorary Diploma, International Exhibition, Bulgaria
1989- Mongolian Youth Federation’s Award
1993- “Honored Labor” medal, government of Mongolia
2003- “Pole Star” of Mongolia, which is the highest honor that the Mongolian government bestows on artists

Night of Otgontenger Mountain

Night of Otgontenger Mountain

Her paintings and graphic works are in the collections of:
Fine Art Museum of Mongolia
Mongolian Modern Art Gallery
Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan
Trade and Development Bank, Ulaanbaatar
Agricultural Bank, Ulaanbaatar
Mongolian Chamber of Trade and Industry
Undruul Hotel
Tsetseg Hotel
Soros Foundation, Ulaanbaatar
The Asia Foundation, San Francisco, USA
Private collections in Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Korea, China, Russia, USA

Ger District

Ger District; she is particularly known for her series of ger paintings

Horse and Rider

Horse and Rider; one of her book illustrations

Mongolia Monday- Mongol Artist Tod Otgonbayar

Mongolian Woman
Mongolian Woman (Tod was nice enough to send me this jpg of one of his paintings that I particularly like)

I got an email recently from a Mongol artist asking me to introduce his website. I checked it out and found that I was more than happy to do so. And that’s not all. It seems that I had already “met” Mr. Otgonbayar through the art he created for Mongol postage stamps, which I blogged about in January of 2011. Small world.

He left Mongolia in 2004. The country was still in transition from communism and his politically inspired art was a problem, so he went to Russia and then on to England, which is where he and his family now live.

T. Otgonbayar
T. Otgonbayar

He paints as he pleases now, in a number of styles and themes, including surrealism, dada, tantra and maybe my favorite, tachism. His work is highly colorful and full of symbolism. There is a good selection on his website, including more of the postage stamps that he created. I encourage you to take a look!

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

Mongolia Monday: 6 Great Mongolian Art Sites

One of the best-kept secrets about Mongolia is how important art is to Mongol culture. It reminds me of what I’ve heard about Bali, where it seems that everyone does something creative. I’ve found that as soon as someone in Mongolia finds out that I’m an artist, I come into focus and more or less jump to the head of the cultural line.

Artistic expression in Mongolia ranges far and wide, from traditional painting and sculpture to singing, music, dance, calligraphy, leatherwork, feltwork, embroidery and more.

One of the gallery areas in the Modern Art Gallery, with a large shaman's drum

Mongol painters have been able, for the past seventy or so years, to travel to art schools in Eastern Europe, including Russia, where they have learned classical academic methods at a time when that instruction was impossible to find in the United States. The results can be seen today, especially in the Mongolian Modern Art Gallery. which is really a museum with a permanent collection.

Horses Hooves by P. Tsegmid, Modern Art Gallery; a personal favorite

There is also a national organization, the Arts Council of Mongolia, which runs a variety of programs to support young and emerging artists. I spent an hour with the director of the Council this past trip and came away very impressed by the quality of the programs and the staff.

Political commentary from an artist who was part of a group show at the Union of Mongolian Artists' gallery last year

There are also at least a couple of artist-run organizations. One of them, the Union of Mongolian Artists, has excellent light-filled exhibition space in a building just south of Sukhbaatar Square. I go there every time I’m in UB and the current offering is always interesting and of good quality.

Mongol calligraphy by Sukhbaatar Lkhagvadorj

Some of the artists have their own websites. Here’s one from an incredible Mongol calligrapher, Sukhbaatar, who I have gotten to know on Facebook. He and his fellow calligraphic artists use the ancient Mongol vertical script which Chinggis Khan got from the Uigher people since the Mongols had no writing at the time he established the empire. The script also exists in type fonts and is taught in the schools.

Tsagaandarium Art Gallery and Museum

There are also a few commercial art galleries where you can see a very wide range of contemporary Mongolian painting, sculpture and other media. I’ve been to the Valiant Art Gallery a number of times. It  has two locations: one in the same building as the famous expat restaurant, Millie’s, which is right across the street from the Museum of the Chojin Lama and the second near the State Department Store. Last, but certainly not least, is the Tsagaandarium Art Gallery and Museum, which is located on a corner in Zaisan, across the river from the main part of Ulaanbaatar. They not only have great art, but offer all kinds of community events and art classes.