– True artistry at your fingertips –
“The world of carving is accessible to only dexterous, creative and talented people,” S.Baasandorj quoted his grandfather’s words.
S.Baasandorj, who has been exploring the beauty of carving for 40 years, is a distinguished Mongolian illustrator and carver, recognized both locally and internationally for his artistry and precision, despite having never released an exhibition before. He has been a member of the Union of Mongolian Artists since 1983. S.Baasandorj shared about his career and the world of carving in the following interview.
When did you graduate as a professional carver?
I studied carving at the Fine Arts Middle School of Mongolia and graduated in 1980. My mentor was a man named Jambal. I started serving my mandatory military service in 1980 and after being discharged in 1983, I begun working as a carver at an arts and crafts factory of the Union of Mongolian Artists. Since then, I have never once strayed away from this job.
Were you dexterous and artistic as a child?
I aspired to become a painter when I was a kid. But fate made me a carver.
The stronger the folk arts flourish, the stronger the nation develops. It’s impossible to catch up to classical and world art without cultivating the folk art…
Most carvers carve things on commission so they hardly ever keep their creations. Isn’t that a little regretful?
Indeed. I carve on common household products. This is a special feature of the carving art. So it’s rare for us to keep our creations. There are some carvers here and there who only focus on creating art and exhibiting them.
In the past, the National Amusement Park used to be filled with your carvings. Unfortunately, all of them were removed after a repair and maintenance work. Where are your biggest artworks stored now?
The staff of the National Amusement Park isn’t telling me where it moved the “Ulgeriin Khotkhon” (Fairytale Town), which I carved for them. I actually want to store it in my collection if they tell me where it is. Last year, I carved the structure and furniture of a massive Mongolian ger in Hulunbuir Prefecture in Inner Mongolia. I made sure that the carvings were all very unique. I also decorated the inside of the parliamentary meeting room and Ceremonial Hall in the Government Palace with my carvings. If I were to mention all of my works like this, the list would be endless.
The Union of Mongolian Artists exhibits artworks of artists, painters and sculptors and supports their participation in international competitions and exhibitions. How does the union support carvers?
I guess it would be weird to complain that the union doesn’t pay much attention to carvers. But it’s true that they focus on painters and sculptors more. Rather than developing the classical arts, we carvers reflect the folk art in our creations. The stronger the folk arts flourish, the stronger the nation develops. It’s impossible to catch up to classical and world art without cultivating the folk art.
Carving and traditional patterns and ornaments are inseparable. Do you study patterns and ornaments often?
Carvers are the masters of ornaments. Patterns of Uvurkhangai and Undur Gegeen Zanabazar are very common in Mongolia. There are heaps of different pattern and ornament types. Only professional carvers are able to recognize and distinguish them.
Patterns have unique meanings. What type of pattern do you prefer to use in your work?
Choosing patterns is more dependent on what you are carving rather than the pattern itself. Besides the symbolism of a pattern, I choose patterns specifically to suit the overall design of the item. This might only be my individual method though. You must think that patterns are nothing more than things drawn or carved on chests and boxes. In fact, it can even express anguish or exaltation.
…Variations of patterns portray the skills and differences between carvers. It proves that geographical and nomadic lifestyle is reflected into artworks. However, these crafting and carving techniques are being lost…
Do carvers have different techniques that depend on where they live and the kind of materials they use?
Dariganga artists (an eastern Mongol sub-group), for example, created their own unique crafting technique in their land in Sukhbaatar Province. They have a unique pattern which distinguishes them from others. Umnugovi Province’s Noyonservee pattern is marvelous and very detailed as well. If you compare these two patterns, they are completely different. There’s Uvurkhangai Province’s Uyanga pattern and Batnorov’s pattern too. They are simple but extraordinary. Mongolian ger furniture and items used to be carved very skillfully. These variations of patterns portray the skills and differences between carvers. It proves that geographical and nomadic lifestyle is reflected into artworks. However, these crafting and carving techniques are being lost. It’s wrong to imitate patterns without following the correct order and naming it after the original pattern. Nowadays, more and more people are doing this. The modern teaching method could be impacting this wrong influence. Most master carvers in Mongolia are specialized in eastern art so they mainly create based on that style.
Is there a specific procedure or order for carving?
Carving technique varies depending on whether it is a flat, full, or decorative carving. People call us carvers probably because we work with wood. But I think differently. There are times when carving seems similar to sculpting.
Apart from carving household items and artifacts, we even create wooden portraits. From another side, carving sometimes feels like a decorative art. Small and detailed carvings can be made to anything, including modern building structures.
Where is your hometown? Are there many artists and carvers in your hometown?
I was born in Umnugovi Province. There are many people skillful in arts and crafts in my hometown. It’s always been known to nurture artistic people – women are artistic and men are skilled in carpentry.
…Carving is an art of aesthetic sensitivity…
Are young people interested in carving? Do you have students?
Carving is an art of aesthetic sensitivity. Wood is a “soft” material and is fragile. Carving soft materials requires the highest level of skill. Long ago, carpenters used to learn to carve on wood before learning to work with hard materials such as gold and silver. I started teaching at the Industrial Arts Institute in 1995. I taught around 10 students during my five years there. I’ve been collaborating with them since 2000.
My children are now fully capable of taking care of themselves. The only thing I’m unsatisfied with is the fact that some people with a knack for arts and crafts, in other words amateurs, are degrading the reputation of carvers. It’s unfortunate that people who imitate other people’s work are valued and treated the same as us. Artworks of amateurs and professionals should be evaluated separately.
Artists have to think, design and work to get a final piece of artwork. Amateurs, on the other hand, are just imitating artworks of others. It’s appalling to know that there are so many imitators.
Is the Mongolian carving art different from western carving art?
Every nation has a different wood processing method but there isn’t much difference in terms of carving. The unique trait lies in the carver’s artistry and skill.
Different types of woods have different qualities and characteristics. What kind of wood do you usually use?
Personally, I believe that any wood can be carved. I mainly choose to work with cedar wood. It’s very hard yet light. It also has a wonderful aroma.
…One mistake while carving can make a precious wood into a waste. You can’t fix it at all…
Since you work with wood all the time, you must be good at carpentry, right?
That’s right. Sometimes, I suddenly get the urge to carve something but as I prepare and shape the wood, the urge dies out. This has happened quite a lot before. One mistake while carving can make a precious wood into a waste. You can’t fix it at all. You must make a precise outline and design of the carving or else it’s really challenging to complete it.
As people age, their eyesight deteriorates. Does it impact on carving skills?
I do fear that. I want to carve until the day I die. I’m scared that my eyesight will worsen but carvers usually live a long life. There’s a person who still carves even though he’s in his mid-90s.
The secret to carvers’ long life might be connected to the fact that they concentrate on their carving while breathing the comforting smell of wood.
Was there a time when you didn’t carve or touch wood at all?
I cannot endure not touching or carving wood for more than a week. My hands voluntarily go towards wood. I just have to hold wood in my hands.
…The secret to carvers’ long life might be connected to the fact that they concentrate on their carving while breathing the comforting smell of wood…
According to rumors, you have been receiving many commissions from abroad lately. Do foreigners pay more for carvings?
Europeans value fine arts, including carvings, more than Mongolians. They are willing to pay any price for artworks by well-trained and skilled artists. It’s not a secret that Chinese and Inner Mongolian people are very interested in Mongolian folk art and imitate them.
Foreigners ask me to organize trainings and workshops for carvers and teach them my technique. I even received job offers to teach others. Since I’ve aged a bit, I prefer staying in my home country. We mustn’t neglect or lose our folk art just because the world is globalizing.
We should be working hard to developed it even further.