On a Saturday afternoon in March, Uran Biir head instructor Tsogo Mijid paces energetically before six young students in the basement of his house in the Cherry Creek neighborhood, which he has transformed into an art classroom.
“Why are animals hurting?” Mijid poses.
“They’re losing their habitats,” one child responds.
Another pipes in: “They get stuck in plastic bags and can’t get out.”
“Birds can’t move their wings because of oil,” someone else chimes in.
After a short discussion, Mijid asks the children to draw the scenes they’ve described. They pick up their pencils and begin sketching polar bears, birds, oceans and trees on their sheets of scratch paper.
This short activity is representative of the kind of learning that takes place at the Uran Biir (“Creative Stroke”) Colorado Mongolian Art School. Founded in 2006 as part of the Mongolian Culture and Heritage Center of Colorado, Uran Biir offers art classes on Saturdays and Sundays to students from elementary through high school. During the pandemic, Uran Biir began offering virtual art classes to students across the United States and plans to continue doing so even after social distancing protocols end. Uran Biir has become the largest program run by the culture center.
Unlike run-of-the-mill classes that focus overwhelmingly on technique, Uran Biir takes an interdisciplinary approach to art pedagogy. Each semester, Mijid selects one country for students to focus their studies on. Currently, the spotlight is on South Korea. In addition to surveying the history and culture of a country each semester, students learn about the artistic styles associated with that country. Last semester, when the focus was on Spain, students examined the work of Joan Miró and created Miró-inspired pieces.
Classes are taught predominantly in English but bilingually in Mongolian, as well.
“There’s this really accelerated loss of culture that I’ve noticed. The youth don’t speak their language, don’t understand their language — let alone write in their language,” says Eriko Tsogo, creative director at the Mongolian Culture and Heritage Center of Colorado and Mijid’s oldest daughter.
In December, students embarked on a mandala rock art project, hand-painting stones from around the neighborhood with intricate, colorful designs. And on warmer days, students receive instruction outdoors, in a traditional Mongolian yurt that Mijid designed and built himself.
Like many art studios, Uran Biir encourages students to participate in art competitions each year, and they have won various prizes along the way. This past month, students submitted colored drawings of ducks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual Junior Duck Stamp Contest. A paper poster resting on a blackboard in the front of the room is adorned with rough anatomical drawings of ducks in a pond, their necks, their beaks, and their webbed feet. Mijid unearths an array of student compositions and lays them out on the table for display.
Mijid, the founder of Uran Biir, was born in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, in 1965. Restlessly creative in childhood, he studied art at the Mongolian University of Art and Culture and Shevchenko Art Academy of Ukraine. During the 1990s, he was among the first Mongolians to immigrate to Colorado. In that time following Mongolia’s democratic revolution — which occurred in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union — many Mongolians left the country in search of better economic opportunities.
For many years, Denver had the largest Mongolian population of any city in the United States. Although today Mongolians are settled all across the country, Eriko explains that “Denver continues to stay the hub...because of the similar altitude, the weather, and the dryness.”
Denver and Ulaanbaatar are sister cities, and a park in East Denver is named the City of Ulaanbaatar Park in commemoration. Mijid designed the first permanent public sculpture by a Mongolian artist in the U.S. for the park, a twenty-foot-tall representation of the open fireplace that sits at the center of traditional Mongolian households.
Uran Biir is a collective effort undertaken by Mijid’s family. His wife, Baja Batochir, is a head instructor at Uran Biir alongside Mijid. She met him while she was a student in Ukraine, concentrating on Theater Arts at Kiev Art University. Their two daughters, Eriko and Jennifer Tsogo, have followed in their parents’ paths, pursuing their own careers as artists. Together they are active in their efforts to celebrate the richness and variety of Mongolian culture in Colorado.
Mijid’s own artistic development over the decades reveals the imprint of both major political events and his own migration story. As a young artist, he painted in the social-realist style in vogue under the Communist regime. When he spent time in Hungary after graduating from art school, he learned printing techniques that made their way into his works from that period. Today his art reflects an abstract-expressionist approach, marrying fragments of human forms with fluid lines and bright colors. He encourages his students to explore various mediums and styles of expression, as well. The walls of his classroom are decorated with movie posters, band T-shirts, photography and Mongolian art.
Self-expression is cultivated rather than repressed at Uran Biir.
“The kids have a lot of character — a lot of energy. They’re not afraid to say what their opinions are,” Mijid says with a chuckle.
Uran Biir Colorado Mongolian Art School offers both in-person and virtual classes on weekend mornings and afternoons. Uran Biir also offers private one-on-one lessons. Inquiries can be sent to Eriko Tsogo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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