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Painting Elephants Get Online Gallery

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 26, 2002
 
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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 and 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.'"

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