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Art's Animal Expression

Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky are the crème-de-la-crème of abstract artists with masterpieces showcased throughout the world.

For several years, a budding group of painters has been following in these masters' footsteps and gaining their own worldwide attention.

However, the new breed of painters can't use hands to hold a paintbrush, because they don't have any. They use their trunks to create works of art - they're elephants!

At the country's largest art expo, many art aficionados agreed, the elephant artworks are the ones to watch.

"It's a beautiful painting, I put it in the bedroom and [look at it] before I go to sleep," says art collector Amin Khan of his elephant painting. "It makes me happy."

Khan is so happy that he bought one elephant-made painting for every room of his house.

Mamie, a 47-year-old female elephant, has been painting for six years.

She's one of four painting elephants at the Knoxville Zoo, in Tennessee.

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

He says it's easy to teach elephants to paint, but it takes practice.

"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," laughs Fineman. "At the beginning, we thought of elephants as abstract expressionists because they're doing what Jackson Pollack was doing, which was putting the paint on the canvas in a very direct and immediate way."

Over time, elephants learn to embrace their own distinct styles, says Fineman.

"It's all about the gesture, it's all about the way that [the elephant is] moving the brush with a certain kind of violence and certain kind of lyricism as well," she says.

But, it is art with a purpose. For centuries, Asian elephants made a living hauling trees. Deforestation and logging restrictions led to massive unemployment for the elephants, and many died of neglect.

Two innovative 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 she had pure talent, according to Komar and Melamid.

High on their success with Rene, Komar and Melamid opened an art school for elephants in Asia. The Thailand elephants loved to paint and they drew for their livelihood. A large percentage of elephant art sales go to elephant conservation funds.

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 her caretaker, Gaugler. "I'm not having to help her along. 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 much more outgoing, energetic, she's very inquisitive," says Gaugler. "Mamie was always shy and withdrawn and now she's part of the herd, which is a very positive and good thing for the elephants."

There are more than a dozen painting elephants in the United States. You can purchase elephant art simply by visiting the Knoxville Tennessee Zoo's website or elephantart.com and novica.com.