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.
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!
Yesterday I finished and signed two of the largest paintings that will be in “WildlifeArt: Field to Studio” a group exhibition with six other Signature Members of the Society of Animal Artists. It will be at the Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut March 24- May 4, 2016. The opening reception will be on March 31 from 6-8pm and is open to the public. The other participating artists are Alison Nicholls, Sean Murtha, Karryl, David Rankin, Kelly Singleton and Carel Brest van Kempen. What makes this show unique is that for the first time that I know of, we will be showing not only our finished work, but also the fieldwork that inspired and contributed to it. And that is what we all have in common- we get out into the field. Some of us travel to places like Mongolia and Africa. Others stay closer to home, but we sketch and paint and, in Karryl’s case, sculpt in nature.
I’m posting all the images of the work that I will have in the show in an album on my Facebook page here. You can read a article that just came out this week in Plein Air Collector about the exhibition here. Another article will be in the new issue of Western Art Collector, which will be available on newstands around February 16.
The 2015 WildArt Mongolia Expedition, which had the honor of carrying Explorers Club Flag 179, began when I got up at 3:45 am on July 16 for the drive to the airport. We picked up the Mongol student/artist, Turuu, who was going with me for the first two weeks of the trip, and arrived at Chinggis Khan International Airport at almost the same time as our hosts for this first part of the Expedition, argali researchers Dr. Barry Rosenbaum and Dr. Amgalanbaatar Sukh. Barry had generously allowed me invite myself and Turuu to join him and his team for this year’s argali capture attempts. It was about a 2 1/2 hour flight to Olgii and, having a window seat, I was able to get some aerial photos as we flew in.
We were met by two drivers with Russian fergon vans. One was from Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, of which Dr. Amgalanbaatar (Amgaa) is the Director. They had driven out from central Mongolia with the capture equipment, including a very large pile of nets. We had lunch in town and had time to explore the town while Barry and Amgaa took care of some final arrangements.
Bayan-Olgii Aimag has a Kazakh majority and is best known as the home of the eagle hunters. But our mission was Altai argali. I had never seen the sheep that live out in the far west and was interested to see what, if any, differences there were between them and the Gobi argali I have become very familiar with. They are both members of the same species, Ovis ammon.
Our destination was the Hokh Serkhiin Nuruu Strictly Protected Area, about a three hour drive south of Olgii.
We arrived at our destination, a Kazakh “homestead” in a wide valley with a stream running through it.
The first order of business was to prepare the last bits needed to set up the nets.
Then it was time to head out to the capture site. I had the pleasure and privilege of being designated “the photographer” since I had good camera equipment with me, so I was able to move around as needed and document the whole process.
Barry had briefed everyone (he had a number of volunteers with him) on what to expect….how the nets would be set up and why, how the sheep would not be “driven” but slowly and carefully moved along in the desired direction by local Kazakh horsemen and the many ways the argali had found in previous years to evade the nets.
The nets were set up in two rows about two hundred yards long at the low point of the level area between hills.
This took some time. It took “teams” of three or four people working together. One on either side of the net to raise the supporting posts, one at the end to hold the rope taut and someone to hammer in the stakes.
Then, after all that work, setting up four hundred yards of netting, the order came from Barry to drop them to the ground! Which made sense once one thought about it, not taking a chance on an animal getting caught and trapped during the night. Of course, this took mere minutes compared to the set-up.
Back at camp the next morning there was a meeting between the researchers and the local Kazakh horsemen who had been hired to find and bring in the sheep.
Then we went back out to the capture site. I took this photo to try to give some idea of how long the net line was.
A couple of local herders with very sharp eyes and binoculars had been scanning the surrounding hills for argali and did so again the next morning while the nets were raised again. They did this every day and sheep were located almost every time.
A single ram was spotted, silhouetted against the sky. There were two ewes grazing on a hillside far up. Also this herd of ewes and lambs. Taken with my 80-400mm lens, so they were a long way off.
Once the nets were in place, everyone took a pre-determined position.
The first morning the horsemen found and started to drive a group of seven argali rams, but they did what the rams do, which is split up and dash in different directions. I started to understand why captures are challenging with smart animals who have survived because they know so many ways to escape.
The second morning the spotters went out and came up empty. I went back in the afternoon with Barry and the Ikh Nart crew and joined in helping to set up the nets.
Word had come back an hour or so earlier that the horsemen, who had ridden a long ways into the mountains in their search, had finally found the big herd that was believed to be in the area. Barry initially decided to delay because it was sunny and hot. Argali can become hypothermic and die within twenty minutes of capture in those conditions. But then it started to cloud up and Amgaa got things moving. Barry went back to camp in one of the vans to get the volunteers.
One could feel a frisson of excitement and anticipation. Everyone in the valley around the nets was on the ground and had to stay absolutely still. The previous attempts had the volunteers, strung out at 40 yard intervals on either side of the end points of the nets and up onto the slope where the argali were supposed to show up, laying flat and face down for over two hours. Their job was to get up when signaled via walkie-talkies to block the sheep from that escape direction.
This time it was a little over an hour after everyone was in place and…
The huge herd just poured down off the hill. Anand, one of the rangers from Ikh Nart, who was acting as a spotter and not far from me yelled” Susan, get down!” So I ducked even lower behind my grass clump.
Then things started to happen very fast. The sheep on the slope started to pull up.
Anand called my name again and pointed past me. I turned and saw this…
They must have split off as the main herd was running up and over the mountain. They came out from between it and the next hill at a dead run. All I could do was sit and shoot as many photos as I could as they went by, maybe thirty yards away.
It was definitely a letdown for everyone, even though the researches (and I) know that nothing is guaranteed with wild animals. But I got some fantastic images of those argali who ran past me, one of whom was wearing a radio collar, so she was one who had been captured by Barry last year.
The next morning we went out for one last try. Word had come in that two groups of argali had been located. At 10:15am I was in “my spot”, this time knowing that I was so close that I would use the Nikon D750 body with the 28-300 lens, not the 80-400. My instructions had been to stay put until the sheep hit the nets, then I was free to move around wherever I wanted to. But by 12:40 all the horsemen and motorbike riders were back, having found no argali. So it was back to camp and the end of capture attempts for this year for the researchers, sorry to say.
No matter, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, heat and epic numbers of mosquitos notwithstanding. For three days I got to be part of an important research effort since Barry’s work in Bayan-Olgii is the only other place in the world besides Ikh Nartiin Chuluu where research is being carried out on this species. I was able to see Altai argali who, while the same species, do differ in color and markings from the Gobi argali.
There was the usual group photo session. I asked if I could pose with the Kazakh horsemen. Someone said something to them and they walked off, so I figured the answer was “no”. But, silly me, they had just gone to get their horses and line up for this great shot.
I also wanted one of me and Barry and the Ikh Nart crew, which first got a little silly.
And then we got the “real” one.
It took awhile to get everything set for departure, so what the heck…
Turuu and I were able to hitch a ride with the Ikh Nart folks for the four hour run to Hovd, where we would join up with a guide and driver/cook for the next stage of the Expedition.
It was a stunning drive. Lots of grab shots from the van.
Turuu and I stayed at a local hotel for a couple of nights, meeting up with our guide and driver/cook over lunch and planning the next week’s route, which included Maikhan Nature Reserve and Jargalant Hairkhan Uul. And they will be the subject of next week’s post.
I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia late at night on June 28, was in town for a day and then took the train down to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. I saw quite a few argali and got some great reference photos.
I returned to Ulaanbaatar (UB) after four days, had one day in town again, then joined a Mongolian friend of mine and her family for the annual Naadam celebration in Erdenet, which is a city to the northwest of UB. I got to see four horse races and learn quite a lot about horse racing culture in Mongolia since my friend’s brother is a race horse owner. It was a terrific look behind the scenes.
Once ready to go, the horses are ridden out to the starting point, so they will have done the course twice, out at a walk/trot/canter and back at a run. The feature race for adult Mongol horses was a little over 20km. It had been shortened this year since the rains have been slow in coming and the wasn’t as much grass as was wanted and needed.
A recent development is crossing Mongol horses with Arabians or American or British thoroughbreds, trying for more speed. These “hybrids” run in their own separate race. Above are four of them approaching the finish line.
There is also a race for two-years olds, which will be their first. The above two photos show the finish of that race. It’s a test to see how they do in a real race. Horses who show promise might be purchased from the breeder on the spot.
The rules governing the jockeys changed a couple of years ago to increase safety. The lower age limit was raised to seven years from five. The boys and girls (not many but there’s usually one or more) are required to wear helmets, knee and elbow pads and to wear shoes. They can still ride bareback, on a pad or in a saddle. Insurance is also required.
They really do start them early in learning to ride. I saw fathers putting two year olds up on a horse and holding them in place for a minute or two and riding with a bit older child seated in front of them. The young boy in the above photo was perfectly confident, sitting very calmly as he guided his mount.
Unlike American and European racing, the default for Mongol horse racing is geldings. There is one race just for stallions. Mares are not raced since they bear foals and provide milk. This stallion made sure he was between me and his harem. The racing horses are watched much more closely and aren’t allowed the same free range as the working horses. Their training for the naadam begins six weeks before the festival with a carefully calibrated diet and a conditioning routine. The ones picked for racing love, love, love to run and holding them back can be a challenge.
Here are two horses in the final stage of training. They were finally allowed to run and took off like a shot. The trainer and maybe the owner are in the car carefully observing them. The night before the race the men stay up all night with the horses who will race the next day, feeling the state of their stomach and feeding them at the appropriate time.
This is the jockey who rode my host’s horses. He’s eight years old and was all business. Never saw him crack a smile.
We stayed at this camp set up by my host just for the naadam races. It was a wonderful site with an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside.
Two of the cousins of the family watching the sun set.
It wouldn’t be a naadam without horse racing and wrestling and we also got to watch the latter. The rules are simple: if any part of your body other than the soles of your feet or the palms of your hands touch the ground, you lose.
The competition begins with all the wrestlers doing the Eagle Dance in front of a national standard.
It’s all very colorful, from the maikhan (the tents) to the officials to the wrestlers themselves. It’s single elimination all the way through. One loss and done.
I also got a tour of the city, known for its enormous copper mine which was established by the Russians back in the 1970s. Everything produced, which also includes molybdenum, goes to Russia.
There is a new Buddha statue which will form the center of a planned development. It’s one of the biggest in Mongolia and is directly across from the copper mine. There was also an ovoo with an unusual wooden bird on the top. I’ve never seen that before.
After four fun and rewarding days we took the overnight train back to Ulaanbaatar. I’m resting up and seeing friends, plus doing a little last-minute shopping because on July 16 I depart for western Mongolia for my third WildArt Mongolia Expedition which has been awarded a Flag from The Explorers Club! Stay tuned!
I’m very pleased to announce that “A Good Stretch”, 20×24″ oil on canvas, has been accepted into the 55th Annual “Art and the Animal”, the prestigious international juried exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists (I’ve been a member and Signature Member since 2002). The venue for this year is the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History from August 28-October 25. There were 395 submissions from 237 members (the Society has almost 500). One could submit two works, but only would be accepted. It’s extremely competitive and a real honor to have made the cut. (This is my fifth time in the show since I first got in in 2009.)
My subject is a Gobi argali ram, seen above, who I spent a hour with at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve last year. I climbed up and sat on a rocky slope overlooking the valley where the research camp is located, across a draw from him and in full view. Even did a few sketches. When I got home and went through my photos I realized that he was in three of my argali encounters over the four days I was at the camp. The white area on one horn where the surface layer has broken off (almost certainly from a fight during the rut) makes him easy to recognize. Nice for me because I always want to paint individuals.
It’s been an intense two weeks since I decided to do a series of three argali paintings at the same time. My idea was to enter all three in a particular juried show, with the hope that maybe all three will get in because they will look good together on the wall. Will it work? Who knows? It was a good experience and something I haven’t tried before. It made sense to work back and forth on all of them since it was the same group of rams in the same light and location, so I was using the same colors.
I think I’m a little “argalied” out at the moment, so I’ll be moving on to some other pieces that I already have in progress, but I feel like I’m off to a good start for 2013.
There are many artists who come up with a way of working that satisfies them and they never alter it. That would not be me. Every year about this time, I sit back and rethink my whole process of painting a picture. I’m perfectly willing to toss it all in the air and tweak and change whatever I think needs it. It’s very liberating.
I recently went to the Norman Rockwell show and was reminded of how thorough a process he used, how he broke down the elements of a picture and solved the problems as much as he could with each step, always leaving the door open for alterations down the road if needed. It’s the same procedure we were taught when I was getting a degree in illustration at the Academy of Art in the late 1980s. One didn’t need to do every step every time, but it was always there to fall back on if one got in trouble. (The steps are: thumbnails, rough drawing for composition, finished drawing, value study, color study, finish)
One of the things Rockwell did was very finished charcoal drawings at the final size. It always looked like a lot of work, even though I really love to draw, and I guess I never really got the point. I do now. I got into messes a couple of times in the past year, partly due to not solving all the drawing and value problems before I started to paint. I had begun doing drawings at the final size for the large pieces, but only outlines, no value. I’ve just started a series of three argali paintings and decided to take it up a notch.
I also needed to rethink how I got my image onto the canvas. I don’t have a projector anymore and don’t really want one. I’ve found a lot of value in drawing an animal multiple times because I really LEARN it. A painting shouldn’t be about saving time or doing it fast. It should be about doing what it takes to get it RIGHT.
One benefit of doing the drawings at the finished size is that it is then easy to make a tracing and do a graphite transfer. The alternative is the venerable grid system, which works just fine, but, dare I say it, takes a lot more time to no good purpose and, more importantly, didn’t give me as accurate a result.
These three pieces are compositionally simple. I have a clear idea in my head of where I want to end up. The main upfront decisions were how big and what proportions each one should be since they are intended to hang as a group, although they will be priced individually.
The reference photos (which I am not going to post due the vagaries of the internet) were taken during one action-packed hour with five argali rams at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in Mongolia in July 2010. And two afternoons I spent there this past August during an eleven day stay doing studies of argali horns at the research camp really paid off in being able to understand the horns in the photos.
I’ll start with that page from my sketch journal and then show you the steps so far for the three paintings. I didn’t do thumbnails or rough drawings, but went straight to finished working drawings of the animals, but still thinking about what the landscape will look like.
Painting No. 1- Tentatively titled “Coming Through”, a big ram asserting his right to walk wherever he wants to, when he wants to
Painting No. 2- No title yet
Painting No. 3- No title yet
I should have a pretty good handle on argali horns by the time I’m done with all three paintings.
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.
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!
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!