Mongolian art school Uran Biir Colorado explores the world through creativity

On a Saturday afternoon in March, Uran Biir’s head instructor, Tsogo Mijid, energetically paces past six young students in the basement of his Cherry Creek neighborhood home, which he has converted into a art class.

“Why do animals suffer? Mijid poses.

“They are losing their habitat,” replies a child.

Another launches: “They are stuck in plastic bags and cannot get out.”

“Birds can’t move their wings because of the oil,” someone else adds.

After a short discussion, Mijid asks the children to draw the scenes they have described. They take their pencils and start drawing polar bears, birds, oceans and trees on their sheets of scrap paper.

This short activity is representative of the type of learning that takes place at the Uran Biir (“Creative Stroke”) Mongolian art school in Colorado. Founded in 2006 as part of the Mongolian Center for Culture and Heritage in Colorado, Uran Biir offers art classes on Saturdays and Sundays for elementary through high school students. 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 cultural center.

Unlike regular courses that focus primarily on technique, Uran Biir takes an interdisciplinary approach to art pedagogy. Each semester, Mijid selects a country on which students can focus their studies. Currently, the spotlight is on South Korea. In addition to studying the history and culture of a country each semester, students learn about the artistic styles associated with that country. Last semester, with the focus on Spain, students examined the work of Joan Miró and created pieces inspired by Miró.

Classes are taught mainly in English but also bilingual in Mongolian.

“There’s this really accelerated loss of culture that I’ve noticed. Young people don’t speak their language, don’t understand it, let alone write in their language,” says Eriko Tsogo, creative director of the Mongolian Center for Culture and Heritage in Colorado and eldest daughter of Mijid.

In December, the students embarked on a mandala rock art project, hand-painting stones from the neighborhood with intricate and colorful designs. And on the warmer days, students are taught outdoors, in a traditional Mongolian yurt that Mijid designed and built himself.

Like many art studios, Uran Biir encourages students to enter art competitions every year, and they’ve won various awards along the way. Last month, students submitted colorful designs of ducks to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual Junior Duck Stamp Contest. A paper poster on a blackboard at the front of the room is adorned with crude anatomical drawings of ducks in a pond, their necks, beaks and webbed feet. Mijid unearths a range of student compositions and arranges them on the table for display.

Click to enlarge

A selection of designs submitted to the annual Junior Duck Stamp Contest.

Jasmine Liu

Mijid, the founder of Uran Biir, was born in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, in 1965. Tirelessly creative as a child, he studied art at the Mongolian University of Art and Culture and at the Shevchenko Art Academy of Ukraine. During the 1990s, he was among the first Mongols to immigrate to Colorado. During this period following the Mongolian Democratic Revolution – which occurred following the collapse of the Soviet Union – many Mongols 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 the Mongols are settled all over the country, Eriko explains that “Denver continues to remain the hub…due to the similar altitude, weather and drought.”

Denver and Ulaanbaatar are sister cities, and a park in East Denver is named Ulaanbaatar City Park in commemoration. Mijid designed the first permanent public sculpture by a Mongolian artist in the United States for the park, a twenty-foot-tall depiction of the open fireplace that sits at the center of traditional Mongolian households.

Uran Biir is a collective effort undertaken by the family of Mijid. His wife, Baja Batochir, is chief instructor at Uran Biir alongside Mijid. She met him when she was a student in Ukraine, focusing on theater arts at Kyiv Art University. Their two daughters, Eriko and Jennifer Tsogo, followed their parents’ path, 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 both the imprint of major political events and his own history of migration. 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 the printing techniques that found their way into his works of this period. Today his art reflects an abstract expressionist approach, marrying fragments of human forms with flowing lines and vivid colors. He also encourages his students to explore various mediums and styles of expression. Her classroom walls are decorated with movie posters, band t-shirts, photographs and Mongolian art.

Self-expression is cultivated rather than repressed in Uran Biir.

“The children have a lot of character, a lot of energy. They are not afraid to say what their opinions are,” laughs Mijid.

Uran Biir Colorado Mongolian Art School offers in-person and virtual classes on weekends in the mornings and afternoons. Uran Biir also offers one-on-one private lessons. Inquiries can be sent to Eriko Tsogo at [email protected].

Kayleen C. Rice