It’s been many years since I first came across the work of Nicholas Roerich. I can’t remember how I became acquainted with him… Perhaps while doing some research related to Tibet or Central Asia. But I remember, several years ago, visiting the townhouse on the upper west side of Manhattan that houses a museum dedicated to him. A fascinating Russian painter and philosopher who lived a great deal of his life in India and Asia. He wrote the “Pax Cultura”, an international treaty dedicated to the protection of cultural values and peace through higher culture. He was also nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, about the time of the Russian Revolution and prior to living in Asia, he spent some time in the U.S., including a short time in my home town of Chicago – at the invitation of Chicago’s Art Institute. He would have celebrated his 135th birthday this past week on October 9th, same day as my grandfather’s. And so it was a bit synchronistic for me to find out this summer that he had also lived in Ulaanbaatar for a year.

A famous Mongolian historian, Professor Bira, had discovered the decaying, Russian-style wooden house that Roerich and his family lived in from 1926-27. Professor Bira and a group of supporters saved the house from demolition, restored it and dedicated it as a museum and art gallery this past July. An art competition and exhibition for young Mongolian artists was also held there recently. Rumor is that the founders and supporters hope to develop an art center in Roerich’s memory on the site. For more information about the Roerich museum in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, visit:

I have always been intrigued by the Symbolists and Surrealists and wished I could paint dreamy and imaginative images like them.  In my mind, I’ve associated them with modern European artists from a bygone era.  It’s rare that I’ve come across a contemporary surrealist painter who truly inspires me.  Chicago artist, Eleanor Spiess-Ferris is one of them, and the Mongolian painter, Lkhamsuren is another.  There are some paintings and artists that just speak to you and Lkhamsuren’s images resonate with me.

I first came across Lkhamsuren’s work when I saw a calendar of his paintings in an Ulaanbaatar souvenir shop.  A year later, I had the honor of meeting him in his studio.  Last month, he had an exhibition, “21st Century Art” at the Union of Mongolian Artists’ (UMA) main exhibition hall. I saw his exhibition and sat in on a discussion he lead about his work with a group of Mongolia’s honored artists, poets, and critics.

Before his lecture and group discussion, Lkhamsuren walked me through his exhibition, giving me the history and background information of many of his paintings, and an explanation of much of the symbolism he uses.  Lkhamsuren has been an artist since 1965 and began painting in the surrealist style in 1974-5.  He worships the sky, as did Chingiss Khan, and as do Mongolia’s nomadic people and Shaman do even today.  He creates only a few paintings per year and spends a great deal of time researching, planning and thoughtfully drawing out each painting.  By my observation, this is truly evident in each detail.  There is great spiritual and historical depth to his paintings.

 As we are walking through the gallery, he tells me that “science says everything comes in parallels; opposites; binary opposition.  For every action there is a reaction.”  He says he studied about the power of the triangle.  “The triangle is a powerful symbol with a long history coming from Ancient Rome, Egypt, Mexico, etc.  It’s found throughout ancient history and cultures and is a powerful symbol – Think of pyramids and other ancient architecture and symbols in the shape of a triangle.”

 “The triangle is also powerful in nature”, he says. “Now we must protect nature.  There have been so many natural disasters because nature is responding to global warming and problems caused by humans.”  This is also evident in his art.  “Artists are using art to respond to global warming and damage done to the environment”.  This is evident in his use of the Mongolian landscape which in some cases has become barren due to de-forestation, mining, harsh weather and over-grazing.

 He mentions the yin-yang symbol – sometimes called a fish symbol by Mongols.  “But Mongolia is a landlocked country and this is not a natural symbol for Mongols”, he tells me. “It came from China.”  He created his own symbol of binary opposition: 2 triangles – inverted and placed over each other. It looks to me like the Star of David. He also uses the XAC symbol also known as a sun symbol in ancient Indian culture and later known as the svastika.  He says the Nazis used the svastika because half of them were originally from India.  

 He likes to use historical symbols and elements such as Chingiss Khan in his paintings.  These subjects can often be political. This was especially problematic during the Socialist period as Chingiss Khan and the early history of the Mongols were banned at that time.  The frames of Lkhamsuren’s paintings are also full of symbolism – using small metal charms, bone and horsehair which hang around the edges of his paintings.  These are often replicas of symbols found in shamanism or on petroglyphs and ancient stone monuments.  These unique frames give his paintings an Iconic quality – reminiscent of the Icon paintings found in Russian Orthodox churches.

 We pause in front of one unique painting of a famous Buryat Mongol Lama.  In the painting, he is seated in a meditative position which creates the outline of a triangle.  Lkhamsuren tells me he interviewed this Lama’s previous caretaker while researching his idea for this painting.  He says, “The triangle was a powerful symbol in this Lama’s life. He studied the power of the triangle and shared this power with people. He even preserved his own body after death.”

 As mentioned previously, Chingiss Khan is a popular subject in his paintings.  “Chingiss is a misunderstood figure in history”, he tells me.  Lkhamsuren elevates Chingiss in his paintings and creates icon-like images of him and says Chingiss should be worshipped. 

 I tell him that it is interesting to me that he chose the surrealist genre because it seems to go against socialist ideology and as he mentioned, “it is more free”.  This is especially intriguing since under Socialism, art was often used as propaganda and controlled by the State.  I ask him if anyone criticized his work?  Yes, he said.  In fact, he and other modern artists were punished at that time, although he would not say how.  But now, in the 21st century, he honors the memory and dreams of Chingiss, his ancestors and Mongolia’s ancient history freely.

By Mongolian painter, Soyolmaa

By Mongolian painter, Soyolmaa

A friend of mine, Marianne Solome, recently published a book about a fellow artist in Mongolia, Soyolmaa.  Soyolmaa is an accomplished painter whose work is inspired by her Buddhist beliefs.  Please have a look at Marianne’s lovely video:

Their book, “Deep Knowing”, can be found on Amazon.

Last week, I ventured down to Chicago’s Cultural Center hoping to hear a curator’s talk about a very cool exhibit on contemporary Chinese art.  Unfortunately, there was some misinformation, so I wandered over to one of the other galleries.  To my surprise, was a very interesting exhibition of surrealist style paintings by Chicago painter, Eleanor Spiess –Ferris. The added bonus was that she was giving a talk about her work just as I was wandering by.  I’ve often been fascinated by the surrealists and symbolists.  (One of my favorite surrealist painters is Dorothea Tanning, originally from Illinois, and who happened to be the wife of Max Ernst).

I also had the opportunity to meet her afterwards.  Eleanor’s paintings re-sparked my interest in surrealism.  Her haunting, imaginary landscapes and use of symbols and forms from Alchemy, create many layers of meanings.

Her work is on view at the Chicago Cultural Center at Michigan Ave. and Washington, until July 5th.   For more about Eleanor’s work, visit:

Also wander upstairs to the 4th floor to view the fascinating exhibition of contemporary Chinese Art – Big World: Recent Art From China, a collection of contemporary paintings and installations.

Sandag Boldbaatar at his opening in the Mongolian National Art Gallery.

Sandag Boldbaatar at his opening in the Mongolian National Art Gallery.

When I arrived in Ulaanbaatar in the summer of 2005 for a volunteer gig, I was told by my host that there were many artists anxious to meet me.  I chuckled to myself as I wasn’t expecting that.  I was going to be teaching English to school age children for the summer months and hadn’t expected much else.  Shortly after my arrival, I was introduced to Mr. Sandag Boldbaatar, a professor of art at Mongolia’s University of Technology.  We talked about my experience with ceramics, art, museums and archaeology.  The news of my arrival spread like wildfire and soon I was being introduced to numerous artists and being shown around studios, university departments, galleries, the National Arts Council and the Union of Mongolian artists.  They even took me to a small town about 30 miles away to visit a vocational training school that housed a small ceramic department.  Soon people were giving me Mongolian clay (earthenware) and I ordered some low fire Amaco glazes and had them shipped to Ulaanbaatar (UB for short).  Next thing I knew, I was teaching a kids’ clay class on Friday mornings.  This was all due to the graciousness of Mr. Boldbaatar (Boldoo for short) who has since become a close friend and colleague.   And after a jaunt to a local tourist camp where we donned replicas of ancient Mongol costumes for a photo op, he became known as one of my “Khans”. 

One of my Khans

One of my Khans

Boldoo is from Northern Mongolia, in the Lake Khovsgol area.  He was a caretaker of a famous archaeological site and ruin of one of Mongolia’s famous ancient monasteries at Zunmod.  He was involved with the establishment of the ceramics industry in Mongolia in the 1970’s.   He is a member of the Union of Mongolian Artists as well as afounding member of the Blue Sun Artists Group.  A professor at the Technical University and the winner of a presidential medal for his involvement in the construction of the recent Chingiss Khan Memorial and museum in front of Mongolia’s Parliament building.  He has exhibited in Mongolia, Korea and Europe, and has curated numerous exhibitions in both Mongolia and abroad. 

Chingiss Khan Memorial and Museum, Sukhbaatar Square

Chingiss Khan Memorial and Museum, Sukhbaatar Square

The last time I was in UB, he approached me about an art magazine he is trying to coordinate and publish.  Through this magazine, he hopes to introduce Mongolian art and artists to the outside world.  I am very greatful for our friendship, for his introductions to Mongolian art and artists and other important people now a part of my life.