“I don’t know anyone else who is painting the landscape there on location.” California artist Susan Fox isn’t talking about a park. She’s talking about an entire country.
Lead Image: Evening light at Hokh Serkhiin Nuruu Nature Reserve in Mongolia
For 10 years Fox has been visiting Mongolia, the 600,000-square-mile nation in Asia sandwiched between Russia and China. She paints the people, the wildlife, and especially the landscape, moving freely within the country, respected as both a woman and an artist. “It’s a relatively easy country to get to, and it’s not difficult to get around once you’re there,” says Fox. “I speak a little Mongolian and said I was an artist and was very much respected. I can go pretty much anywhere, walk out all day by myself. I’ve never had a problem in 10 years. I’ve painted three different ecosystems in two weeks. You can just go and paint your brains out.”
Fox says some of her favorite subjects are mountains, forests, the Gobi Desert, cities, the steppes, big skies, and gers — the round tents that are called yurts in other countries. “Gers are stable and comfortable, and the quality of space is very pleasing and nice to be in,” says Fox, “even in high winds, driving rains, or dust storms.” One can also stay in a town, in a hotel, for about $35 a night.
The weather can be quite extreme. The temperatures may dip well below zero in the winter, and the heat is “challenging” in the summer, according to Fox, who also notes the number and ferocity of mosquitoes. “But anyone living in the Deep South won’t have a problem,” she says.
Hearing the artist talk, it’s plain that she was happiest when traveling through the Mongolian countryside, taking care to stop early enough to squeeze another watercolor painting in before dark. “It is the ultimate tent-camping location because you can set one up anywhere you like,” says Fox. “I went there for seven weeks this past summer and carried the Explorers Club flag, focusing on creating art in the field. I focused on watercolors and drawing materials so that I could get set up very quickly.” She cut down sheets of 140-lb. watercolor paper into 8”-x-8” squares and also worked on a 9”-x-12” pad, sometimes executing two long horizontals on one sheet. Fox returned to the United States with more than 30 paintings and drawings, plus a full sketch journal.
Fox was keen to draw and paint the argali, a species of mountain sheep, but she also enjoyed painting the horses of Mongolia. The horse is central to Mongolian identity. “They ride bareback at age 3,” says Fox. “You can’t separate them from their horses.” But it would be a mistake to think of Mongolia as backward. “They skipped landlines and went straight to cellular,” Fox points out. “It’s a fascinating cultural mash-up of old history and absolutely 21st-cntury ideas. It is a connected country with a university-educated populace. You’d be surprised how modern the country is, even if the gers look very different from what you know as houses.”
Fox works with an outfit called Nomadic Journeys to plan her itineraries. She thinks a plein air painting tour is inevitable. “It would be very easy to put one together,” she says. “It’s not difficult to get into this amazing landscape.” But for now, Mongolia remains Fox’s almost exclusive treasure.
“I can’t think of a nicer place to spend the summer,” she says. “It’s so beautiful.”