I’m into the final push now to finish the paintings that will be in “Wildlife Art: Field to Studio” at the Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut from March 31 to May 24. It’s a group exhibition with six of my colleagues, all Signature Members of the Society of Animal Artists who take their inspiration from the field, which in this case includes Mongolia, India and the Himalayas, Central America, Africa, the Rocky Mountain States, the Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound areas. There will be a lot more on the exhibition soon, but if you live near Greenwich, mark your calendars for the opening reception on March 31. It looks like all of the artists will be there!
The painting at the top, “Chronos, Khomyn Tal Takhi Stallion” is of a horse that I saw at Khomyn Tal in western Mongolia this past July. It turns out that he is one of the original 22 horses who were reintroduced there in 2004. Since I was there in 2006, I may have seen him. I had no idea that any of those takhi would still be alive, but there are a number of others besides him.
I photographed the tolai hare at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. I’d been trying to get paintable reference of Mongolia’s only native lagomorph (member of the same family that includes rabbits) for years and mostly all I had was them running away after exploding almost at my feet and just about giving me a heart attack. But this one evening at the research camp, I was already sitting up on a rocky slope waiting for argali to come to the spring to drink and this hare hopped out into the great light to nibble on grass and forbs. All I had to do was stay as still as possible and click the shutter. I believe this is the first painting ever done, at least by a western artist, of this species.
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.
I was watching, sketching and photographing a group of ibex near this instantly recognizable rock formation at the west end of the valley where the research camp is located at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. Suddenly a raven landed on top of the rock and stayed for quite bit, occasionally announcing his presence. There were also endangered less kestrels swooping around and some red choughs, so it was quite a busy morning.
I got hundreds of great photos of ibex at Ikh Nart last year. I’ve done some drawings to familiarize myself with what they look like and how they are put together. You can see those here. This is the first painting I’ve finished, a 12×9″ of a kid who was part of a small group I watched for over half an hour one morning. They were up in the rocks at the far end of the valley where the research camp is located, so an easy hike with great rewards.
Here’s a photo of the setting, which includes the nanny who, as you can see, is wearing a radio collar. The morning light was really lovely.
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.
I had gone out very early from the research camp at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve this past July and had settled down on a rock to see who would show up at the water hole.
I looked up and saw these two rams checking me out as they scanned their surroundings.
The sun was just hitting the cliff tops, so they really stood out against the morning sky.
For the painting, I wanted to give a sense of the landscape that they live in and how comfortable they are on tilted surfaces that would make most of us somewhat nervous.
Soon after I took this and some more photos, they came down onto the valley floor and joined up with some buddies for a drink and a graze.
I got to watch them for about half an hour.
And yes, after 2 1/2 years, I’ve updated the look of my blog with a new theme. I finally found one that I liked and that has new features and functions the previous one lacked. Let me know what you think!
My plan was to go back to Kenya in 2005 for an Earthwatch Institute-sponsored research project “Lions of Tsavo”. But I was leafing through the new Expedition guide and a project I hadn’t seen before caught my eye, “Mongolian Argali”, whatever those were. Oh. Wild sheep. But….Mongolia. Now there was a place that seemed like it might be interesting to travel to. And who knew how long the project would last. Some went on for a decade or more. Others only for a year or two. I called the Earthwatch office, changed projects and, without realizing it at the time, changed my life.
Argali (Ovis ammon) are the world’s largest mountain sheep. A big ram can weigh close to 400 pounds. The horn curl can reach 65″. Their preferred habitat is rocky uplands, mountains and steppe valleys. They are currently listed on the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened and Appendix II of CITES. Accurate population estimates are hard to come by. The most current one is perhaps as many as 20,000 in Mongolia. It is known that the total continues to drop in the western and central parts of the country, is stable in the south, but seems to be increasing in the east.
Threats include poaching, both for subsistence meat and for the horns, which are now in demand in China for use in traditional medicine. It has also been shown that there is a nearly 100% grazing overlap between the wild argali and domestic livestock, which includes horses, sheep, goats and cattle. Predation by the herder’s domestic dogs, particularly on lambs in the spring, is also a problem. Trophy hunting is not currently a large factor, but the license fee income (18,000 USD) ends up going almost entirely to the federal government. Very little trickles down to either the local people or for conservation projects. One response at the local level has been to create reserves where hunting is not allowed.
As you can see below, there is now an Argali Conservation Management Plan. My on-going involvement with the womens’ craft collective comes under item four on the list.
“Additional conservation measures are desperately required in Mongolia. Clark et al. (2006) outlined the following:
• Implement the recommendations outlined in the Argali Conservation Management Plan. • Improve enforcement of existing legislation that would help conserve argali. • Enhance conservation management in protected areas where argali are found at high population densities, and increase the capacity of protected areas personnel and other environmental law enforcement officers. • Work to improve the livelihoods of local communities in areas where argali are protected by local initiatives and re-initiate community-based approaches to argali conservation (Amgalanbaatar et al. 2002a). • Develop public education programmes to raise awareness of the status of and threats to the species. • Continue ecological research, monitor population trends, and study the impacts of threats, including work in the Altai and Khangai Mountains to complement research occurring in the Gobi Desert. • Implement the recommendations from the Mongolian Wildlife Trade Workshop as outlined in Wingard and Zahler (2006).
Until a joint research effort was started by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the Denver Zoological Foundation at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in 2001, very little was known about argali ecology, behavior and population status. This was the research that I had signed up to help with as part of the second Earthwatch team ever to go to Mongolia.
It was April of 2005. Spring in Mongolia is a time of cold, wind and dust storms. Daytime temperatures during the team’s two week stay, living in a traditional felt ger, sometimes only reached 32F. I had the time of my life. When they found out I was an artist, one of the scientists asked if I would be willing to go out and do direct behavioral observations. And that’s what I did for the last three days, trekking out alone into the 43,000 hectare reserve with a clipboard, data forms, GPS, cameras, water bottle and snacks, trying to see the sheep before they saw me, otherwise any data I collected was invalid.
Although a lot of the animals were in poor condition coming out of a typical Mongolian winter in which temperatures can plunge to -40F, I saw many groups that included rams, ewes and lambs, gathered some useable data and got some pretty good photographs. It was a perfect two-fer. I was able to contribute to scientific knowledge of a species and at the same time get information that would be invaluable for painting them.
I’ve been back to Ikh Nart five times since then and argali have become a particularly favorite subject. I’ve also seen them now at two other locations: Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve and Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
I thought that I would share some of the photos I’ve taken and the paintings that have come out of them. It usually takes around three, often quite a few more, reference shots since I move animals around, change backgrounds or whatever it takes to make a composition work. I’m only going to show the main animal reference that I worked from. This fieldwork is critical. When working on a painting, I’m also remembering what it was like to be at that place, how the wind felt, the utter quiet when I stopped for a break, then trudging along, looking up and seeing that the sheep had already spotted and were watching me.
Before I left on my July/August trip to Mongolia, I bought some new stuff and posted about it here and here. It included a new camera pack, jacket, hard drive for image back-up and memory cards. I also bought a couple of pairs of L.L. Bean tropic weight pants.
The KATA digital rucksack was a WIN. My camera equipment was well-protected and easy to access. The straps had a good ergonomic design that made the pack very easy to wear while hiking.
My new REI Windbreak Thermal jacket was also a WIN. It was all I needed for summer travel in Mongolia and it really did stop the wind and resist light rain.
The Toshiba 500GB hard drive, which I used to back up images that I had downloaded to my MacBook Pro did the job. I liked not having another battery to keep charged, as was true with the Wolverine drive it replaced. Another WIN.
The Sandisk Extreme 8GB cards were indispensible. I was filling one in a little more than a day at times. I’ll keep the 4GB ones for back-up for now, but will probably get two more 8GB cards for the trip to Kenya/India in January. Definite WIN.
The only FAIL were the L.L.Bean “tropic weight” cargo pants. I have no idea what they were thinking when they named these. I wasn’t in the tropics, but the weather was often humid, sometimes VERY humid. The pant fabric didn’t breathe at all. If anything, they acted like a moisture trap when my legs started to sweat. Very uncomfortable. Needless to say, they aren’t going to India with me, but they’re fine for wearing here in Humboldt County.
Two of the things I like best about traveling to Mongolia are staying in a ger and visiting people in their gers (“ger” means “home” in Mongolian).
Actress Julia Roberts was hosted by a family of horse trainers during the filming of an episode of the PBS series “Nature” called “The Wild Horses of Mongolia” (which isn’t what it was about, although there was a little takhi footage from Hustai National Park included). At the end, she’s sitting in a ger filled with Mongolians, looking into the camera with this big grin, saying something to the effect of “I’m sitting here in this ger and I don’t understand a word of what these people are saying, but I’m as happy and content as I’ve ever been in my life.”
Yup, she nailed it. I feel the same way. There’s something about the quality of space created by a ger that is very special. I’ve been in clean ones, dirty ones, sat on stools, beds and the floor, seen beautifully furnished ones and ones with next to nothing in them and I get the same content feeling in all of them. Hand me a bowl of suutei tsai (milk tea) or airag (fermented mare’s milk) and some aruul (dried yogurt) or tsotsgii (cream) and I’m a happy camper (and a cheap date too, I guess, although my husband would probably beg to differ). Anyway, here are some of my favorite images of gers from my four trips to Mongolia.
First, ger camps:
In 2005, I got to visit a ger factory and see how they are made:
Then we went to the Black Market where you can buy anything ger; from individual parts to the whole thing.
The research camp at Khomiin Tal (takhi reintroduction site) in western Mongolia is spectacularly sited in a river valley:
My first experience of staying in a ger was during my first trip to Mongolia on an Earthwatch project “Mongolian Argali” (now called “Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe”; highly recommended) in the spring of 2005. The camp is much bigger now; seven gers, two containers and a volleyball court: