Artistic Elephants

With keepers sitting on their necks, elephants eat various kinds of fruit during an elephant buffet at Maesa elephant camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand, March 13. About 70 elephants have been brought to participate in the ceremony to mark the country's Elephant Day.
The expression: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," are words to live by in the art world.

No matter what your taste, there's something for everyone. And at the country's largest art expo, some art aficionados agree that the artists behind some particular paintings are the ones to watch.

"I put it in the bedroom and before I go to sleep, it makes me happy," says art collector Amin Khan. He thinks the paintings are great, so he bought one for every room in his house.

"She's a really gifted artist," says Khan. "I think it's extremely impossible for a human being to make these strokes, and elephants trunks, they make a different stroke."

Yes, he said "elephant." Mamie, a 47-year-old female elephant has been painting for six years. She's one of four painting elephants at the Knoxville Zoological Gardens in Tennessee.

"When we get the utensils out, they know what's going to happen and they all come over and want to take a turn painting," says Mike Gaugler, the man who teaches the elephants to paint.

But, he says, it takes the elephants practice to create art.

"The hardest part is actually convincing the elephant not to eat the paintbrush," says Gaugler. "Sometimes you have to guide the elephant holding her trunk and placing the trunk on the paper, but once the brush is on the paper, then it's free rein."

According to Mia Fineman, art curator and co-author of "When Elephants Paint," as pachyderm painters gain more experience, their art becomes more sophisticated.

"It's just a matter of hand-eye coordination, but in this case, it's eye-trunk," says Fineman. "At the beginning, we thought of elephants as abstract expressionists because they're doing what Jackson Pollock was doing, which was putting the paint on the canvas in a very direct and immediate way."

Fineman says, over time, elephants learn to embrace their own distinct style.

"From this picture you can see it's all about the gesture, it's all about the way that he's moving the brush with a certain kind of violence and certain kind of lyricism as well," explains Fineman.

For centuries, Asian elephants made a living hauling trees. But, deforestation and logging restrictions led to massive unemployment for the elephants and many died of neglect.

Two Russian artists heard about the elephants' plight and found them a new job. In 1995, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid handed their own paintbrushes over to an elephant.

Renee was their first student. She lived at the Ohio Zoo, and according to Komar and Melamid, she had pure talent.

High on their success with Renee, Komar and Melamid opened an art school for elephants in Asia. It turned out Thailand elephants loved to paint, too. Now many elephants paint for their livelihood. A large percentage of elephant art sales go to elephant conservation funds.

And, as if to prove they are worthy of the title "artist," Fineman says elephants are painting in a figurative and realist styles.

Back at the Knoxville Zoo, 18-year-old Ellie is still learning to perfect her craft.

"Ellie, being a teenager, likes to do really fast and almost sloppy work sometimes, but she's getting better," says Gaugler. "I'm not having to help her along. To me, that's one of the signs that she's progressing as an artist."

As for the veteran in the group, Mamie's love of painting has not only made her a better artist, it's made her a better elephant.

"She's very inquisitive, says Gaugler. "Mamie was always shy and withdrawn, and now she's part of the heard, which is a very positive and good thing for the elephants."

There are more than a dozen painting elephants in the United States. And it's as easy as a click of a mouse to purchase elephant art. Visit the Knoxville Zoo's Web site or for more information on elephant art. Most of the profits from art sold by the sites go to elephant conservation efforts.