Painting for peanuts – and big money

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.)

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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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