Interview with Julie Pitzen: Postcard from Mongolia

Buddha Mask
Julie Pitzen. Buddha mask. 2006. Handbuilt, porcelain,
glazes and stains, 12″. Mongolia.

Julie Pitzen, a former Chicago resident, now lives and works in Mongolia. As an anthropologist, ceramicist, and educator, Pitzen works with the country's artists and organizations, including the National Arts Council, to help build the local arts community and to bring awareness of Mongolia's art and culture to the world. Joining ArtStyle Blog as a Contributing Blogger, Pitzen will be sending occasional “postcards” from Mongolia.

ArtStyle: What is your art background and how did you get started in art?

Julie Pitzen (JP): I have been working in clay since I was 10 year old. My family and teachers encouraged me to study art in college. Living in a multi-cultural city like Chicago and spending Sundays at the Field Museum and Oriental Institute, I was fascinated by other cultures and ancient history. When I went to Indiana University, I studied both art and anthropology with minors in art history and museum studies. I had a work study job where I catalogued thousands of potsherds, exposing me to ancient art/ceramics.

After college, I worked at the Field Museum on a variety of projects, including researching ancient pottery from the American southwest. On the weekends, I would visit my cousins who had a pottery studio north of Chicago. I started doing a lot of garden sculptures: things like garden gnomes, bird houses, and large handbuilt vessels. My ideas came from the ancient pottery I had seen and I also took ideas from folklore particularly from my Scandinavian and eastern European ancestry.

Julie Pitzen. Yak. 2000. Handbuilt, white stoneware,
stains, 7”. Private collection. Photo: Guy Nicol.

I joined Woman Made Gallery and entered some shows, and I even curated one. The commute got to be a bit much, and I wanted to expand my knowledge and experience with ceramics. I joined Lillstreet Art Center when it was still on Lill Street (Lillstreet Art Center is now at the corner of Montrose and Ravenswood). This experience gave me a chance to develop my knowledge and learn some new techniques. It also opened many doors for me. I participated in group shows, sold work through the gallery, became a member of the Illinois Artisans, and was also a member of the Board of Directors for Lillstreet's Learning Center. After a few years at Lillstreet, I really wanted my own studio space. I found a space to share in the Ravenswood corridor along with two other artists. We had a small gallery area in the studio and would participate in the Ravenswood Art Walk and held our own shows. The opportunity to go to Mongolia came up, and I left everything in Chicago.

Deer Goddess
Julie Pitzen. Deer Goddess. 2005. Handbuilt stoneware and
glazes, 24”. Private collection. Photo: James Balodimas.

ArtStyle: Why did you go to Mongolia and what are you doing there now?

JP: As I mentioned earlier, I'd always been interested in other cultures and ancient history. This was particularly true of central Asia, especially Tibet and Mongolia. One of my grandfathers used to say he was the heir of a Mongol prince. Because we had no diplomatic ties with this part of the world for so long, I couldn't go there. Finally in 2004, I gathered my courage and planned a trip to Mongolia on my own to see some of the important archaeology sites. I thought it would be a one time visit, but I returned again in 2005 as a volunteer for People to People International (PTPI) to teach English and art. To my surprise, I met many ceramic artists and visited some studios, schools, and facilities. Sadly, I found their equipment and facilities in a state of decay and disrepair. Kilns are about 40 years old with elements burned out. One friend made his own potter's wheel because he couldn't afford to buy one. They use only the local red clay, which dries and cracks easily. They are limited to electric kilns and low-fire glazes, which often come from China or Russia and may contain lead or other toxic chemicals.

I'd also met with the director of the National Arts Council, which is doing lots of innovative things to help build up the arts community and bring Mongolian arts to the outside world. In 2006, the ceramic artists invited me back to work with them. I brought my cousin, a retired art teacher, along with me. I also brought some tools, low-fire lead-free glazes, pictures, books, and magazines. They were so happy and I could see the wheels turning in their heads. They craved these things and inspiration to develop their own creativity. After my 2-week stay, a small gallery provided a space to hold a small exhibition in the center of the city. During that time, I was also offered a job to teach English and art at a local school. I thought this was a great opportunity, so I went home, quit my job, and came back here. Unfortunately, the school canceled the budget for the ceramic art program. So I taught art briefly at another school.

Organic Torso
Julie Pitzen. Untitled. Torso. 2002. Handbuilt, stoneware,
soda fired, glazes and stains, 21″. Personal collection.
Photo: Guy Nicol.

There's also a lot of politics and cultural differences to deal with. Things happen on “Mongol time,” which can be frustrating when trying to organize meetings, exhibitions, classes, and so forth. We tried to get an art magazine started — wrote the articles and got organized — but then the sponsor pulled out. I participated in an exhibition with 2 other women artists at the National Modern Art Gallery as part of a Women's Day celebration. I've done some consulting for the National Arts Council relating to museum education. I've met with the country director of UNESCO to discuss an art exhibition relating to Mongolian culture with the possibility of bringing it to the US. There are really so many things that could be done. The problem is Mongolia is so isolated, the economy is poor, and they have few resources. The big thing is to bring Mongolian art out of Mongolia to the rest of the world. There are so many wonderful artists, and they have been locked in here for so long. That's why it's great to have the opportunity to be interviewed by Art Style Blog.

ArtStyle: You said you wanted to create a magazine. What kind of magazine do you want to create and why?

JP: Last year, an art professor came to me and asked if I could be on the editorial board and write articles for a new quarterly modern art magazine he was starting. He and some other artists saw this as a way of sharing Mongolian art with the outside world. They wanted to sell the magazine to tourists and try to distribute it in Singapore, Europe and perhaps the US. They had someone from Singapore who was willing to pay for the cost of printing, but unfortunately the funding fell through. So it is on hold for the time being.

Mongolian influenced vessels
Julie Pitzen. (L to R) All 2006. Handbuilt, stoneware, glazes and stains.
Mongolian Saddle vessel. 12″. Mongolia.
Tara 3. Vessel 18″. Personal collection.
Untitled. Lidded box, 12″. Mongolia.
(foreground) Untitled. Candle holder, 3″. Private collection.

ArtStyle: What kind of art do you create and how has Mongolia influenced your art?

JP: As I mentioned, my focus has been on ceramics. While I have been here, I've become interested in paper and fiber arts. I'm trying to make some art books that express some of my experiences here. I'm trying to learn or re-learn working with their clay. I'm so limited here to just the local red clay, low-fire electric kilns (cone 05), and so on. When I worked at Lillstreet, for example, I could combine different clays and firing techniques for one piece. I was spoiled. I'm trying to prepare for a solo gallery show here based on my experience. I want to include ceramics, books, photos, and maybe some painting and felt or mixed-media sculptures. I've become fascinated with the felt work here and have some ideas for felt sculpture. But in terms of my ceramics, I've made some masks and bodices based on Buddhist goddess art, shamanism, and anime. I've made some vessels and boxes based on Mongolian wooden horse saddles, temples, and old architecture.

Bayarmunkh's horse
Bayarmunkh. Clay horse sculpture. Mongolia. Photo: Julie Pitzen.

ArtStyle: What is the culture like in Mongolia in terms of art, and how it is created and perceived?

JP: The art culture here from ancient to modern times is interesting. You have these fascinating archaeology sites, which yield beautiful, intricate animal-style metal work — sometimes in gold — and some mysterious human-form stones and deer stones left behind by previous ancient societies. Then there is the Buddhist art influenced by Tibet, China, and India: old temples, sculptures, and paintings. There is also the propaganda art and monuments from the Soviet era. (Nowadays, some artists are lucky to travel and exhibit in Western Europe. There hasn't been much contact with the US — a few shows namely in Washington and San Francisco.) There are lots of paintings here, some sculpture, and lots of textiles, even leather art.

Younger people seem to be more open and experimental with different materials like using found objects for example. Older folks who were schooled in the Soviet era tend to be more traditional in terms of painting scenery, daily life, people, and so on. There are a few artists' co-ops and galleries popping up. There are a couple groups that do an art camp and invite foreign artists to come live and work with them for a few weeks in the summer. But artists here crave meeting foreign, especially western artists and learning about new materials and new ideas.

Nature is a big topic, not only as subject matter in art, but also using things from nature, creating things in nature, and using art to bring about awareness and protecting nature. I've been talking to a couple of artists from one co-op about creating a show on one of the important river valleys. There have been several incidents where toxic chemicals have been dumped into the rivers by various industries and seriously impacting the eco-system.

Tseringdorj artshow
Tserendorj. Wheel thrown glazed, ceramic vessels with petroglyph
design. Art show, Mongolia. 2007. Photo: Julie Pitzen.

ArtStyle: What are you trying to teach the people you’re working with in Mongolia terms of art?

JP: As an anthropologist, I've had mixed feelings about imposing my culture and ideas on another culture. But artists come to me to exchange ideas and find out what is going on outside of Mongolia. So I've shown them some of the tools, glazes, equipment, and techniques we have in the US, at least regarding ceramics. I've brought low-fire glazes, some of my artwork using various firing techniques, some chemicals to make new glazes, books, and magazines. The internet has been a great resource for showing them websites, newsletters, museum and gallery websites, and all sorts of resources.

I tried to set up a ceramic class and studio at the school where I am teaching English, but they decided to cut their budget and that project got cut too. So I've rented a small office space with tables and started a Saturday morning children's clay class. I get help with clay and firing from a couple of local colleges. I've received some PR on local TV, newspapers, and radio. The kids love it and it's catching on. Soon I'll have to find a bigger and more appropriate space. Adults have taken an interest too, so I need to start thinking of a plan for the future. I think my dream would be to open a space that has room for a workshop, kiln, a small gallery, and coffee shop in the front. I'd like a place where kids and adults can come and work, but where artists and art lovers can meet, have small gatherings, and see and buy new artwork.

Saturday morning class
Some of my current students, Mongolia. 2008.
Photo: Julie Pitzen.

ArtStyle: What is your typical day like in Mongolia?

JP: Well for more of that, you can take a look at my blog. It's still winter and dark when I get up at 7:30 a.m. (By the way, Mongolia is 14 hours ahead of Chicago time.) In December the sun didn't rise until nearly 9 a.m., which made it hard to get up in the morning. I start school at 8:30 a.m. and have a ten-minute walk to the school. That's an adventure every morning. During winter, many people use coal to heat their small houses or gers on the northwestern edge of the city. It creates choking smoke that settles in. Sometimes you can't see down the block. Air pollution is a real problem here. Traffic is also a nightmare as there aren't many rules and everything seems up for grabs. There are a lot of SUVs here, and no one stops for people trying to cross the street.

I teach an average of 5 classes a day, grades 3 to 5. We have lunch in the school cafeteria — usually some form of meat and rice and tea. I love my students and try to make English class fun and interesting for them: books, pictures, videos, music, and things from Chicago. I also try to incorporate some art projects into my classes, including drawing and writing, creating and describing their own dinosaur, or reading a story and having them draw pictures about it. After school I may have some special project, creating a bulletin board for example.

I have lots of projects outside of school. The past few months I have been working part time for a weekly English newspaper as their English editor. So I would go to the office and edit articles. Sometimes I help people edit their translations. My boyfriend teaches at the National University, and I helped him edit a textbook he wrote. I've done some consulting for the National Arts Council on their programs and museum education. Many people want to learn English, so sometimes I tutor or teach an English class. I've done a weekly 5-minute newscast of the news in English. I did a guest spot on a friend's weekly cooking show. Sometimes I do voice recordings for people — lots of unexpected and interesting little projects.

There is usually an art opening somewhere each week, so I try to check out the galleries as often as I can. In the evenings or on the weekends, I usually do housework and meet friends for dinner or go dancing at a disco. Most of the schools, shops, and other buildings are all within walking distance for me, so I do a lot of walking. As for my artwork, I am stuck working in my tiny kitchen at home, so I miss my old studio in Chicago.

ArtStyle: What issues and challenges have you encountered in Mongolia and how did you resolve them?

JP: What's that saying from the Peace Corps? “The toughest job you'll ever love!” That kind of sums things up for me here in Mongolia. There are daily challenges like power outages, not having hot water, no internet service, things being suddenly cut off, things we take for granted in the US. Language is the obvious barrier, but I have managed. I miss my old studio and all the art resources I had: clays, kilns, stores, magazines, galleries, and colleagues. Everything has to be imported here, except for red clay. I think my next challenge will be to contact mining companies to find clay sources and what other minerals are available for making glazes. And maybe to appeal to organizations and outside resources for help and equipment, such as kilns, wheels, and glazes. Since I've started the Saturday morning children's art class, there has been a growing interest in ceramics. Now, even the adults want to join in. If this keeps up, we may outgrow our space and current resources. I've started talking with friends about starting a small art center or NGO.

If you want to help Julie Pitzen bring Mongolian art to the world's attention or to make a small donation to help her cause, contact her at

For more artwork by Julie Pitzen and her Mongolian friends, click here ArtStyle Blog Gallery.

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