When Russian artists Komar & Melamid arrived in Thailand with brush and easel in hand almost a little more than one decade ago, little did they realize they would find as receptive an audience as the SE Asian Elephant.
After all, Ruby, a SE Asian elephant was painting at the Phoenix Zoo back in 1974, what would be so strange about teaching others?
Thanks to interested parties at the government run Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang and the privately owned Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai (run by the Kalmapijit family), elephants long out of work in the timber forests of Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), "eeking" out a living performing before tourists flocking into the expanding tourist destination of Thailand, had a new release for their creative talent.
Since that time, several other elephant camps have invested resources into painting pachyderm programs: the Maetaman Elephant Camp (run by another "branch" of the Kalmapijit family), and the Ayutthaya Royal Elephant Kraal and Village both have talented elephant artists.
Komar & Melamid (at Lampang), Chinese/ Thai artist Chaowalit Sae Jern and then Thai elementary school art teacher Tossapol Petcharattanakool (at Maesa) worked initially with the elephant handlers (mahouts) and then with the handlers and the elephants together, to first teach them how to hold a brush and then put brush to paper. Mahouts had to learn blending of colors and the whys and hows of layering paint (which they then had to communicate to the elephant artist) while the elephant had to learn control over brush stroke and basic lines and shapes.
According to the Mahouts, it could take as long as one year to teach a budding new elephant artist to paint well.
Mind you, not all elephants want to paint, some can not stay focused and would rather chew on the paint brush and slurp the (tasty?) paint.
But some elephants truly have a “mind of their own” and a creative energy – they enjoy learning and performing. Theirs is not a solo performance, however.
And this is what the naysayers need to understand, the process of learning is shared between mahout and elephant with the actual creation of the art piece very much an elephant operation.
Mia Fineman, an art historian who has written on Asian Elephant Art, points out, “The paintings are collaborations, a way of communicating between the animal and humans. The mahouts frequently choose the colors, and the elephants apply the strokes. The elephants quickly master the fundamental techniques of painting, and also develop distinctive sensibilities and styles."
These footnotes aside, where are we more than a decade later?
The worldwide economic downtown has almost halted development of elephant art. The elephant camps seeing a slowdown in visitors have cut back on funds for elephant art training, thus no new innovations in elephant art technique.
I’m a bit chagrined to say that we have not moved very far along the evolutionary (art) trail.
In the near past, Elephants like Wanpen (Maesa), Boonmee(Maetaman), Wangping (Maetaman), Kong Kom (Maesa) painted flowers which looked like they were picked straight from the fields of the elephant camps. Thongsa (Maesa) had even developed a comic style to the sunflowers he paints.
There is little progression in art form. Wanpen’s “Rose” looks today, as it did two/three years ago.
The “realistic “self portrait” created by Elephant Artist Hong, while an interesting depiction of an elephant is but a systematic series of lines “memorized” (learned) and put to paper by the elephant.
Self portrait by Elephant artist Hong whose paintings caused a a "viral" explosion of interest in elephant paintings
Even though it is extremely rare in the animal kingdom (only found in monkeys and dolphins) one can argue, in fact, elephants do have mirror self-recognition (MSR - Joshua M. Plotnik, Frans B. M. de Waal and Diana Reiss article).
So Hong and other elephants beginning to paint “themselves” is not so far fetched.
What has always vexed me is color. How does the elephant artist know that grass is green and flowers are red or yellow or blue?
Some studies have shown that in the wild, elephants do react negatively to colors of various African warriors that prey on them. But those studies also show that the elephant is very sensitive (and reacts negatively) to the scent of the warriors – why they react negatively to colors of clothing not worn by the disliked warriors (in this case there was no scent - the color was red) has not been explained.
While use of colors still has me confused, I accept the explanation of the mahouts that they teach the elephant painters where the various colors go and if an elephant “forgets” in execution of his painting, they remind them with a word or two.
Two years ago, this conceptual impressionistic painting was the evolutionary direction I had hoped elephant painters were moving but alas, it seems the painters have strayed.
Maybe it is because the mahouts themselves have taken up the task of teaching their elephants how to paint – the mahouts skills limited to teaching basics and possibly expanding a bit from that.
It may sound funny but they are not teaching their elephants how to think, how to express themselves how to expand their minds and in turn put those impressions to paper. They are teaching them by route-learning – very much the way that education is practiced here in Thailand (but it remains to be seen how many of the mahouts themselves have completed a traditional education and learned the same way).
What is interesting is a new concept in elephant-human interaction fostered by Anchalee Kalmapijit who was responsible for building interest in elephant art when she was at Maesa and is now doing the same at Maetaman and a new elephant enclave called Elephant Life Experience (E.L.E.).
Anchalee’s concept is to provide a rustic/luxurious living space in the middle of the jungle where elephant and human alike can romp and interact.
Want to bathe with an elephant – a beautiful river runs through the enclave where you and your new elephant friend can play for hours.
Want to impress a loved one with a candle lit romantic fine dining experience set in a completely natural surrounding with an elephant orchestra playing in the background (YES, elephants play instruments too) or just with the natural "music" of the forest - E.L.E can arrange it.
Or, do you want to paint with your new friend – E.L.E. is already fostering collaborative art with human – elephant paintings decorating the walls of the welcome lounge area. \
E.L.E’s idea is to expand human – elephant contact, human – elephant consciousness, if you will.
Elephant Artists Hong, Boonmee, Haad, Somjai, Khamtool and others, some of Maetaman’s most talented painters “hang out” at E.L.E. when humans book time at the enclave.
Anchalee who has spent her life in the business of caring for elephants may be on to something with E.L.E. not only offering humans an opportunity to live out their dreams with elephants but allowing the elephants an opportunity to interact one-on-one with a variety of humans so they can learn to think "outside the box" – something that is not happening in their interaction with the mahouts.
Maybe this interaction will allow the elephant artists to take the next step – conceptional art.
In other developments, thanks to the awareness raised through the YouTube posting, elephant paintings have gotten into the hands of more people that appreciate the art.
Popularity of the art has caused a few resellers to raise prices (at Elephant-Paintings.com we had to slightly raise prices, more as a result of the depreciation of the US dollar and rising costs of shipping and handling).
However, in one instance the same company that posted Hong’s self portrait video on YouTube has begun to sell reproductions of elephant art work which does not help the market. Consumers are not yet educated enough to understand the true worth of an elephant painting acquisition and think the $250 - $300 spent on a copy is not only helping the elephants but like a true collectible, will gain worth as time goes on.
Moral of that story is, buyer beware!
* And for those that do not understand the reference to "Virginia", 8 year old Virginia O'Hanlon (1889–1971) asked her dad Philip O'Hanlon, a coroner's assistant on Manhattan if there really was a Santa Claus. Her dad suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time, assuring her that "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." Several days later an editorial in The Sun entitled "Is There a Santa Claus", laid out an argument why people should not be skeptics but believers. The late 1890's were depressing times - as are these.