Volume I, Number 6, Spring/Summer 2006


© Copyright 2005


Elephants as Artists

. . . . .Eva - Lines in Mind

Elephant Artists
Story by Adam Flinn for Thaifocus. - July 1998

. . No your eyes are not deceiving you. Elephants can paint! That's official and as you read on you will discover a whole new world of Elephantine exhibitions, mammoth masters, brazen brush strokes and trunk re-touches. Pachyderm painters are all the rage these days and you now have the chance to proudly hang their fine pieces in your best room.
. . An art exhibition, glorifying the finer works of elephants, is being planned by Sangduen Chailert, better known as Lek to those fortunate enough to meet her. Small in stature but certainly not in spirit she is the founder of an elephant project in Mae Taman area, 50 km north of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. The park is just a few kilometres from where she was born so when she speaks it is with life-long knowledge, commitment and undisputed love of her native area. She has been around elephants for most of her life since her grandfather had a part share in an elephant trained for 'tilling the mountainous ground that was her family home as a child.
. . "I was fascinated by them since ... well - since as long as I can remember" her eyes twinkle as she spoke "Such a magnificent animal, so huge yet so graceful, gentle and kind. They have a beautiful temperament when they are treated well"
. . Born of a poor farming family she miraculously managed to gather enough funds to open an elephant park. The cost of keeping the elephants nourished and healthy was a difficult, almost impossible, task so she found a way for local and overseas visitors to contribute by charging entrance fees and for elephant rides in the surrounding hills. It's not hard to see why most visitors fall instantly in love with the place. Mountain scenery, oxcarts, green rice-fields, village temples and beautiful natural surroundings combine to evoke a feeling of timelessness and calm. She also does talks on elephant conservation to Professionals, Embassies, informal groups, schools and educational classes.
. . "It still isn't really enough and it's hard to make ends meet" she laments "we have to be creative and find ways for the elephants in our care to survive"
. . And creative she certainly is, when a friend gave her a copy of videotape recorded from a TV programme the bells started ringing. It was a BBC programme featuring talented animals where Ruby, an Asian elephant at Arizona zoo was actually painting pictures. They had trained the elephant to paint thus helping finance the zoo by selling the pictures. With a waiting list of over 200 people it seemed an ideal way for the elephant to help themselves. Then on 23 May 1998 a group of Russian artists came along to the park to share their expertise in similar projects.
. . The park's star attraction is Phet (diamond) who immediately took to the hobby. He is just five years of age and has been at the park nine months. He loves to dance to Northern Thai music when painting and favours the colour green and blue. Lek reasons that his colour choice reflects his love for nature. He favours bold cross-canvas strokes using various thickness of brush and his personal style is regarded as amongst the most professional of all elephant painters. His style is definitely of the non-objective non-figurative abstract model founded in the 1920's. Little could those decadent Europeans have imagined that almost 80 years later their style would be embraced, some may say surpassed, by the world's largest land mammal.
. . "I couldn't believe it" Lek excitedly explains whilst watching her favourite elephant at work "The artist elephants on TV and books were all instructed on the steps to take. They were given only a choice of colour and coaxed by soft words on what to do. Phet jumps into it as a natural, lunging into the material like a possessed artist trying to capture his thoughts before they are forgotten. He watches carefully what he is doing - it's not just luck his efforts are straight from the heart. It's almost as if he realises he can help her herd survive and flourish. I really believe that.

. . . . .Ngam - Deeply from My Heart

"There are less than 30,000 Asian elephants left on our planet today."

. . There are less than 30,000 Asian elephants left on our planet today. In human terms this equates to less than half the attending crowd of a football or baseball cup final. Thai language newspapers have reported the untimely deaths of 13 elephants in May 1998 alone. Thailand's elephant population is estimated between 3,000-4,000, down from 100,000 at the start of this century. They are an officially endangered species and the way things are going they won't be around, at all, in twenty years time. Lek's project is doing what it can by providing a natural sanctuary where they can exist in harmony and with the dignity they deserve.
. . "We do owe them a great debt; our history development and culture are entwined with that of the elephant. The consequences of habitat destruction and species depletion will perhaps seal our own fate" commented Lek.
. . It seems certain that these paintings are soon to grace homes in Thailand and all over the world. Recent coverage by Thai-language newspapers and TV stations has created countrywide interest. Lek hopes that this concern will re-awaken Thai understanding and appreciation of the elephants - which were, until a few years ago, an inseparable component of Thai culture, mythology and folklore.
. . Who knows, perhaps in the future Phet's paintings will be as sought after as those of the early abstract painters like Wassily Kandinsky. Could he be destined to become a celebrated animal equivalent of the great Leonard Di Vinchi? Such pure animal mastery of the canvas is rare if not unique. The fortunate owner of such elephant artistry is practically guaranteed a real taking point as guests admire the unusual painting style created by a two-ton artist with a six-foot nose. "Oh just a little elephant number I picked up in the East!" could well become a party icebreaker.
. . Exhibitions are to be planned later this month in Chiang Mai to display Phet and his companions finest art This display is believed to be the first of it's kind in the kingdom. Re-known art critics have been invited to comment on the mammal masterpieces so the exhibition will be a day of fun as well as for serious buying. Lek also hopes that both international art and nature-lovers will hook up to the park's Internet web-site at http://www.thaifocus.com/elephant where the painting will be on offer on-line.
. . Whilst the plight of the Asian elephant looks grim it is, at least, comforting to know that they still have friends around like Lek.

. . . . .Desi - Nature Motion

Painting Elephants Get Online Gallery
by Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News - June 26, 2002
Elephant Art Photo Gallery: Go >>

. . Paintings done by elephants have been sold at the elite auction houses such as Christie's and shown in museums and galleries around the world. Now the rising stars in the elephant art world have their own dedicated art gallery on the Internet, at www.novica.com.
. . Asian elephants have been trained for centuries to haul logs for the forestry industry, but deforestation and restrictions on logging have meant the loss of jobs for many of them. Animals that can no longer earn their keep are frequently abandoned, mistreated, and starved.
. . For the past several years, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, Russian-born conceptual artists based in New York, have been teaching domesticated elephants and their mahouts (elephants' lifelong trainers) how to paint.
. . Komar and Melamid, who tried creating art with dogs in the early 1970s, learned of the plight of the Asian elephants in 1995 when the two artists were engaged in an art project at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio involving an African elephant named Renee.
. . "Renee was just gorgeous-long lashes, long legged, and very gifted, very talented," said Komar. He recalled that Don Red Fox, a Native American elephant trainer at the Toledo Zoo, "a brilliant man who devoted his life to elephants, taught us how to behave around them, how to touch them to create a bond-he opened a lot of secrets for us."
. . Several elephant sanctuaries have been established in Southeast Asia, but funding is a perennial problem. Building on their experience working with Renee, Komar and Melamid went to Thailand in 1997 armed with huge canvases, paint, and brushes. In 1998 the artists founded the Lampang Elephant Art Academy at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Thailand.
. . Novica, a commercial online arts agent associated with the National Geographic Society, is now representing 15 of the academies' painting elephants. About half of the money from sales of elephant art at Novica will go directly to elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia.
. . "Only in America," said Komar, "could some crazy, idealistic idea become pragmatic charity."

Need for Stimulation

. . Elephants who paint aren't new. Paintings by Ruby, an Asian elephant who lived at the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, sold for up to $5,000 in the late 1980s, said Dick George, a consultant with the zoo and author of a book on the early artist.
. . "Ruby was about seven months old when she first came to the zoo," said George. "She lived with a goat and some chickens, but she didn't have an elephant companion for a number of years. She spent a lot of time drawing in the dirt with a stick, so to make her days more stimulating, her keeper bought her some art supplies."
. . George said Ruby "was excited about painting right from the beginning."
. . The elephants at the art academies in Southeast Asia are taught to hold a paintbrush with the tip of their trunks. Initially, the mahout guides the elephant's trunk over the canvas and offers rewards for good performance.
. . "It only takes a few hours to a day to teach them," said Mia Fineman, an art historian whose book When Elephants Paint is an illustrated history of the Asian Elephant Art nd Conservation Project.
. . "But the elephant has to want to learn," she added. "Elephants in captivity are definitely bored, but it's a matter of disposition, an innate proclivity. Some will do it and some won't."

Stars of the Elephant Art Scene

. . Not all elephants can paint, and of those that do, some are better than others.
. . "Ramona in Bali is really a star among elephant artists," said Roberto Milk, co-founder and CEO of Novica.com. "She's been painting for a long time, and her work has sold well in earlier auctions so she's really elevated her market level."
. . There's definitely a learning curve.
. . "The elephants learn quickly and clearly get better over time," said Catherine Ryan, vice president of communications for Novica. "'Better,' of course is an aesthetic judgment, but you can see the paintings get more complex when you compare an elephant's early work to later pieces."
. . Ruby, the original elephant art star from Phoenix, chose her own colors, said George. "Ruby had a very keen sense of what color, in what sequence, she wanted," he said.
. . In Southeast Asia, an elephant and its mahout are an art-making team, said Fineman.
. . "The paintings are collaborations," she said, "a way of communicating between the animal and humans. The mahouts frequently are choosing the colors, and the elephants are applying the strokes. The elephants quickly master the fundamental techniques of painting, and also develop distinctive sensibilities and styles."
. . Novica.com allows people to purchase beautiful art and give money to a worthy cause at the same time, said Milk, adding: "Our rallying cry is 'An elephant painting in every home.'"


. . The elephant artists whose work is exhibited by Novica.com have varied backgrounds. Here are some of their stories:

. . . . .Ardila - Bright Day

ARDILA is a 22-year-old female born in the wild in Indonesia. Her parents were probably also wild elephants, so their names and whereabouts are unknown. Ardila was found wandering around local farmlands in 1995 and was moved to the Way Kambas Training Center in South Sumatra. She immigrated to Bali in 1997 and began painting lessons in 2001.

. . . . .Arum - Freedom

ARUM was born in the wild in 1973 and first arrived at Way Kambas National Park in South Sumatra ten years later. She began her career giving rides and entertaining local tourists in the park before immigrating to Bali in 1997. Her mahout (trainer) is named Albert; he was also born in South Sumatra in 1973. The two traveled together to Bali in 1997.

. . . . .Seng Wong - Party

SENG WONG is the only male elephant artist in Bali. Born in the wild in 1981, he first arrived at Way Kambas National Park in South Sumatra in 1994. He is a very fast learner, and played the harmonica to entertain local tourists before learning to paint. Seng Wong's mahout is Immam Moustakim, who was born in Jembar, East Java, in 1972.

. . . . .Ramona - Smiling Pink

RAMONA, a second-generation domesticated elephant, was born in Way Kambas National Park in South Sumatra in 1995. Her mother, Karsih, was an entertainer in the park who provided elephant rides and performed simple circus tricks to entertain tourists. Ramona's father was a wild bull elephant whose name and whereabouts are unknown. In 1996, Ramona's mother was transferred to Jambi in South Sumatra. With her background in the entertainment industry, there was little doubt that Ramona would succeed as an artist. She learned the harmonica before beginning her painting career in 1999 under the guidance of Komar and Melamid. Ramona's mahout, Jumadi, was also born in South Sumatra.

Threatened With Extinction

. . The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that there are about 16,000 domesticated elephants in Southeast Asia. At the same time, Asian elephants in the wild are threatened with extinction.
. . The World Conservation Union/IUCN estimates that at the start of the 20th century there were more than 100,000 Asian elephants in the wild; today the number is thought to be 35,000 to 50,000.
. . Pressures from rapidly growing human populations are shrinking the Asian elephants' habitats. Elephant populations in the wild are small and genetically isolated because the elephants are cut off from their traditional migratory routes by human settlements. Human-animal conflicts are increasing. The result is often the death of an elephant-shot or poisoned by villagers protecting their homes and crops.
. . Poaching for ivory, meat, and hides is also a widespread problem.

. . . . .Prathida - Wisdom from the Forest

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG ELEPHANT: Ramona is one of many pachyderm painters in Asia turning out abstract pieces that fetch up to $2,000. She lives at the Elephant Safari Park near Taro, Bali. - Catherine Ryan

Painting for peanuts - and big money
By R. Daniel Foster | Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TARO, BALI - Ramona dips her brush in a bucket of bright acrylic paint, splashing a cobalt streak onto a white canvas.
. . A few more strokes and she switches to orange, then green. Ten minutes later, she steps back to reveal a tangle of strokes that will fetch $300 to $900.
. . That's not bad for a 7-year-old - especially a 7-year-old elephant. Ramona is one in a long line of pachyderm painters turning out abstract pieces that have been auctioned at Christie's for up to $2,000. She lives at the Elephant Safari Park near Taro, Bali. And she paints when inspiration strikes, according to Jumadi, her handler. (The elephant artists also work for peanuts, mud baths, and verbal praise.)
. . Their work has been exhibited at several museums worldwide. And recently, the handlers of a dozen or so painting pachyderms in Asia formed a website, hosted by Novica.com, to sell such poetically titled works as "Rhythm of Freedom," "Fresh Morning," and "Deeply From my Heart." Within two months, sales broke $100,000. Half of the profits go to elephant-rescue sanctuaries in Southeast Asia.
. . True, these seemingly resourceful beasts had some help. But it's plausible, say those who pour the paint and tack up the canvas, that elephant artists enjoy painting and expressing their distinct styles.
. . "For many years, zookeepers have known that elephants both in captivity and in the wild will pick up sticks and doodle in the dirt," says Mia Fineman, an art historian from New York and coauthor of the book "When Elephants Paint." "Elephants are highly intelligent animals who don't particularly like to stand around all day."
. . An elephant's trunk, she adds, is sophisticated, containing more than 50,000 muscles, with finger-like appendages at the tip that aid in flicking a dime, stabilizing a log - or turning out a deconstructed Jackson Pollack. To paint, elephants hold brushes with their trunk tips or grasp a piece of bamboo tied to a brush. Some handlers choose colors for their charges, others allow elephants to dip and splash at will. Handlers may first guide the brush to the canvas and steer the process by navigating a tusk. Then, they let elephants paint by themselves.
. . Many elephant artists were rescued from harsh circumstances, like teak logging, in which they were drugged to work long hours. Up to 50,000 Asian elephants roam the wild, down from 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century, the World Conservation Union reports. Many of the 16,000 domesticated elephants in Southeast Asia are threatened by ivory poachers.
. . Fineman traveled to Asia in 1997 with Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, Russian-born conceptual artists who began teaching elephants to paint the same year.
. . The pair formed three elephant-art academies, with headquarters based at the Lampang Elephant Art Academy outside Chiang Mai. Since then, elephant art has been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, the Berkeley Art Museum at the University of California, and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
. . But critics may ask: Is it really art?
. . "What Komar and Melamid do is often a parody of art or painting and the process in which we evaluate art," says Rosetta Brooks, editor of Smart Collector magazine. "They're more interested in the ideas generated by art, rather that what art looks like," she adds. "Had Novica.com sold the paintings omitting the fact they were created by elephants, people may have responded badly to the work. But given there's a story around it, the work becomes interesting."
. . Fineman maintains that elephants from different regions have distinct styles. Central Thai elephants, for example, prefer cooler colors (blues, greens, and indigos) applied with broad sweeping strokes. "When I view a painting, I can usually tell what region it's from, and which elephant created it," Fineman says.
. . Brooks says that's not unusual. "A cat in England functions quite differently than a cat in America. But if an art historian began saying that this particular elephant's creation is very much like an early Picasso ... then you'd get yourself into a lot of trouble."

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