Elephant Artists

25 Jun
Elephant at an easel, using his trunk to paint. Mae Sa camp, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Elephant artist painting. Mae Sa, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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Elephant artists? Now, that’s something you don’t see every day.

The painting pachyderms of Maesa Camp work with an incredible concentration… Squinting through their long eyelashes and crepey eyelids, they delicately handle children’s paintbrushes with the sensitive tips of trunks strong enough to lift entire logs.

elephant painting of a tropical vine.

Now, these paintings are not unique as an example of non-human art. Koko the gorilla, subject of the world’s longest inter-species communication project, not only has a vocabulary of more than one thousand signs but produces paintings, both abstract and representational.

AARON the Artist, a robot created by the abstract artist Harold Cohen, has been making art for more than fifteen years.

In fact, it appears that elephant art is quite a crowded field. Paintings sell online for prices that would keep many a human artist in more than a garret. And the artists of Maesa camp hold not one but two Guinness World Records — for the largest painting by a group of elephants and the most expensive painting by a group of elephants, respectively.

Elephant painting with mahout standing by. Maesa Camp, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

With a little bit of help from his friends?


So is this creativity in action, another sign of elephants’ phenomenal intelligence? Or a type of trained performance more akin to playing harmonicas, marching, hula-hooping with a trunk and shooting giant footballs at a goal — also part of the Maesa elephants’ repertoire — than any form of artistic endeavour?

Wayull…

Koko and Aaron both choose and select their own brushes and colours. The Maesa elephants, who, like the rest of their species, have extremely limited perception of colour, are handed paint-coated brushes by their mahouts.

There’s a sameness to each individual artist’s creative output which smacks more of training than thought or inspiration.

But…

Anthropomorphising hideously, they do seem “proud” of their productions.

What do you think? Animal creativity? Animal exploitation? Or somewhere in between? And what would it take for non-human productions to be counted as art?

Maesa Elephant Camp is in the Mae Sa valley, 25km outside Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Thanks to Debbie at Delicious Baby for hosting Photo Friday.

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79 Responses to “Elephant Artists”

  1. Myscha Theriault at 8:07 pm #

    Have been wanting to see the painting elephants in person. How amazing.

    • MummyT at 8:19 pm #

      They really were, to be honest. Loads of other interesting stuff in the vicinity, too: snake farms, an orchid farm with a butterfly garden, a monkey show, a place where you can pet baby tigers and an extreme sports place…

    • lawyergal at 3:00 am #

      Honestly, some “modern art” looks worse to me than what an elephant can do. I wrote about this in an art class during college…didn’t get such a good grade on that paper 🙂

  2. Mehreen Kasana at 9:39 pm #

    Oh my God! I love this! It’s adorable and check out those paintings. They’re actually really pretty! Cute blog, MummyT. 🙂

  3. Arkaniayara at 9:40 pm #

    That is amazing!

  4. PeacockWings at 10:05 pm #

    that is amazing!!

  5. louisianefille at 10:59 pm #

    Amazing. Simply amazing. As to your question, I would guess that while they’ve been trained how to put paintbrush to paper, perhaps the paintings themselves come from their own imaginations (for lack of a better word).

  6. klulrich at 11:02 pm #

    This is amazing! I don’t care how many there are out there, elephant artists…that’s insane! Thanks for sharing!

  7. pinky at 12:16 am #

    I think an animal used as means of entertainment is very interesting to me even more people’s attention to the elephant who becomes the artist’s incredible
    http://theidiotgame.com source

  8. Brad Thomas at 12:21 am #

    Wow- those are beautiful paintings!! So cool!

  9. natinanorton at 12:22 am #

    Hey Mummy,

    Lovely paintings to be sure, but definitely somewhere between trained “creativity” and animal exploitation.

    From the Maesa Elephant Camp website, it sounds like money generated from the paintings goes into elephant care and conservation? Whether they’re being exploited for this purpose, however, depends on the methods used in training and maintaining them. As an example, I’ve seen some cruel techniques used in the circus – animals being beaten and housed in appalling conditions. The days of keeping them in cages and hauling them around the country for human entertainment should long be over.

    On the other hand (and on a brighter note), the website also states, “As poor care will lead to poor health, the camp makes sure that only the best and most sanitary nutrition and treatments are provided to all elephants in order to make them stay mentally and physically vigorous.” Hopefully that is true.

    The elephants are being used for both entertainment and financial gain, but as long as the elephants are allowed to roam free and the money is used for only their care and protection… it might be okay.

    Natina

    http://crosswordcharlie.wordpress.com/

    • MummyT at 12:29 am #

      They looked happy enough. But… The mahouts have the traditional mahout spiked stick. So… I’d probably sit with you on exploitation. Although… Were I an elephant, I’d probably rather be an exploited pseudo-artist than working in logging. A difficult one. I suspect it’s a myth one wants to believe. And, as I said a propos of tigers, it’s certainly an innovative way of propagating an endangered species.

      • natinanorton at 3:49 am #

        Ah, spiked sticks, eh? Sounds like they went to the Ringling Bros. Circus school of abusive training (or visa versa).

        Nope, I’m not a big fan of animal cruelty so I’ve gotta go with full fledged exploitation now.

        Some info I found from AnimalRightsAfrica.org:

        “The commercial use and captivity of elephants disrupts their social groups because the activities and movement of individuals is restricted and controlled, and natural connection and interaction within free-ranging populations is prohibited […] [Training] is designed to break the elephant’s spirit in order to make it compliant, so that it is too fearful to be disobedient. Dominance and learned helplessness is generally achieved by force and because elephants are large, strong and intelligent, constant control is maintained by domination and fear.”

        Natina

  10. Brad Thomas at 12:24 am #

    Although, with the large amount of animal exploitation in Thailand, I can’t help but be a little uncertain of the motives of the Maesa Camp…

    • MummyT at 12:31 am #

      It’s a business. I guess its primary motivation is to make money. However… The animals had plenty of space and seemed well cared for. Get plenty of bananas and sugarcane. And, if there weren’t some profit motivation, the majority of them would not have been born.

  11. wandering lass at 1:04 am #

    That’s cool. I want to see them next time I visit Thailand. It’s a shame, I’ve been to Thailand 3 times already but I didnt explore the country that much.

  12. Russell Smith at 1:33 am #

    I am awe-sticken, or is it awestruck? At any rate, I’ve been bowled over with awe for these painting pachyderms. They are better with a paint-brush than I could ever be. Elephants are among a special group of creatures, including humans and chimps that are “self-aware.” Remember the experiment with the mirrors? How the one elephant kept worrying a scar on its ear that it saw in the mirror. (I think cats fall into this category as well, but that a topic for another day, another time.) Add to the fact that these amazing creatures perform funerary rituals and it’s clear to me that if they had opposable thumbs and binocular vision, humans would have been wiped out by them, not the other way around. Sadly, they are vegetarians, so the only reason they’d kill a human would be in self-defense. Why are they so eager to please humans? Is it because they look up to us and want our approval? That seems the obvious answer. Keep blogging. I am entranced!

  13. Summer at 3:25 am #

    This is really interesting! I never knew that 😀

  14. Culture Choc 2010 at 4:05 am #

    So cool.

  15. Sova at 4:13 am #

    if this is not a result of training then we’ll have to ask ourselves — how did those images turned out to be in the elephants’ minds?

  16. pink magic at 4:17 am #

    this is cool – i’m amazed how much of east asia is left for me to explore

  17. michaelchernoff at 4:32 am #

    As amazing as this is for a mammal to be able to manipulate pigments into images, it seems forced. Would this elephant have had the idea or intuition to find a material to form a landscape instead of being introduced to paint brushes. It’s the same as training an elephant to stand on a ball as it is to show them painting. It seems sick that humans are forcing their outlets on animals for performance sake instead of evolution taking its course for a revelation for non-human species to pick up on our skills. Apes share the same competency to use tools and they are self taught. People can only be amazed at what they prove to be facts. Teaching an elephant to paint seems no different from missionary’s converting Africans in the colonial era.

  18. echosofmymind at 4:49 am #

    These paintings seem so zen. I love it. Now I have to follow your journeys. Glad the animals seem well-cared for. Somehow being in captivity and painting seems a lot better than being in captivity and hauling logs. Looking forward to more from you.

    Marie McHale Drake
    http://memoirsandhalftruths.wordpress.com/

    • MummyT at 5:29 am #

      That’s rather where I’m up to with it, as well… Had they been taken from the wild, I think it’s ethically very different… My son thought it sad they were taking the paintings and thought they should hang some up in the nursery for the baby elephants to look at.

      • Russell Smith at 6:48 am #

        Your son sound like a cool kid! Empathizing from the viewpoint of a nine-year-old. You must be very proud. I am adding you to my list of links, if that’s okay with you. All the best, Russ

      • MummyT at 1:48 pm #

        Thank you so much for the kind words about Z. I think he’s pretty cool too. And thanks for the link love, too.

  19. 911forsoldiers at 5:39 am #

    Sweet.

  20. deejamarinara at 5:42 am #

    http://www.formspring.me/heartwrecked94 pretty please ask something nice- my sister needs some love.

  21. Neal Skorpen at 7:13 am #

    Wow.
    I’ve seen abstract animal paintings before, but had no idea that representational ones also existed. Can an animal actually translate what it sees in 3 dimensions into a 2D assortment of colors and shapes? Somehow I doubt it, but what a thing to study! What a gateway into how the mind works!

  22. Grimaud50 at 8:12 am #

    Here is a cool article and video about elephant painting. The elephants in the below link are trained. Our zoo also had a painting elephant (untrained), and his works looked like completely random brush stokes.

    http://www.snopes.com/photos/animals/elephantpainting.asp

    • MummyT at 9:06 am #

      You worked in a zoo?! What an excellent job.

      I would probably concur that there’s not much more creativity there — or representation — or however one chooses to define art (if you go with the “gallery system” definition that’s fairly current nowadays, it counts). Still, it’s a lovely thing to see.

  23. norwegianartist at 9:09 am #

    An artist’s life is a difficult one, indeed, when we find ourselves competing with elephants.

    • MummyT at 10:05 am #

      They’d be even worse behaved than your average artist at an opening, I’m sure.

  24. Spud at 10:13 am #

    Impressive. Though i think the elephants were trained to paint rather than create. I find it difficult to accept that their perspectives of flowers are so similar to ours??? I wonder how long it took to train these elephants, and in some way, is it cruel for them, at our pleasure?

    • MummyT at 10:16 am #

      Well… with regards to the cruelty factor. I kind of take the view that for former logging elephants, which these ones are (they’re decades old, the painters), a little exhibition is probably a walk in the park. If they were taken from the wild, however…

  25. Crissy at 10:21 am #

    In my opinion, teaching elephants (animals) isn’t exploitation at all. And their output marks their creativity. So whether they are trained or they are just simply “talented” as long as they benefit from the money they suppose are earning and they are well taken cared of and not exploited in a way (like hurting the so they would start painting) then I think it’s fine. This is a very interesting post. I like it a lot. Thanks! 🙂

  26. aniku at 12:37 pm #

    nice..
    wow…

    very artistic..

  27. goldenpast at 1:09 pm #

    wow. never heard of an elephant painting.
    haha, that’s pretty insane.

  28. Songbird at 3:30 pm #

    I’m going with exploitation here. Elephants are not meant to paint suspiciously accurate and artistic pictures of flowers. Sorry, I don’t get it.

  29. wow …. TOO GOOD

  30. George Birbilis at 8:31 pm #

    Seeing how nice trained elephants play football no wonder they can paint too. Now if they’re let to evolve their style into something more it would be wonderful…

  31. Madhav / Harshad at 8:43 pm #

    elephent rocks !!

  32. ndrew at 8:59 pm #

    what a cool animal..
    even a man can’t beat the elephant…
    LOL

  33. oasis at 9:00 pm #

    It was incredible possibilities.The painting is beautiful.

  34. Robert Bronson at 9:04 pm #

    Amazing. It looks like Dream Theater artwork ;-). This elephant make impossible possible.

  35. Jackson Rodgers at 10:42 pm #

    Wow, tuly beautiful paintings. Much better than I could ever do.

  36. Sweetbearies at 10:53 pm #

    I never knew an elephant could paint or draw, so thanks for sharing. I am reading a novel right now called The Elephant Keeper, which I think you might enjoy since you like elephants.

  37. Ovy & Jimby at 12:03 am #

    wooww….its absolutely amzing:D….looks like unreal or man painted…wonderful :-BD

  38. Diehl Art Gallery at 12:26 am #

    Wow I’ve never seen a half decent elephant painting even close to what these particular elephants have painted!

  39. Evie Garone at 4:36 am #

    I love elephants, and I thought the art was actually quite decent!! Life is so full of interesting things! Baby elephants are especially cute to me.

    evelyngarone.wordpress.com

  40. NiceArtLife at 4:58 am #

    I’m so impressed by these elephants and the result is that of a human artist.

  41. nannysmurf1 at 8:59 am #

    Thanks for sharing. Their art work is REALLY AMAZING!!

  42. ilmucerdas at 10:43 am #

    wow

  43. newsicare at 11:55 am #

    I have seen this on youtube

    It is quite dramatic for me when i saw this. Elephant is quite smart.

    What other arts elephant can do for us? Anyone can point out this for me? Thanks

  44. Crystal at 12:55 pm #

    They have elephant paintings at the Singapore Zoo as well if you get down our way.

  45. bilalamjad2 at 1:26 pm #

    beautful painting

  46. Sonu at 3:07 pm #

    very interesting! Thanks for the info on Koko and Aaron, they were a wonderful read too! I’m surprised, these paintings actually sell!

  47. Jeff Brown at 10:05 pm #

    Wonderful! I am constantly amazed by what, so called, “wildlife” can do. Of course, I think, in each case these animals were taught by humans to do this. It’s not what you’d call “normal” elephant behavior.

  48. babytyche08 at 10:48 pm #

    Now there is something you don’t see often. Elephants are usually related with being clumsy,reckless and destructive. This post however proves them wrong.

  49. angiosperms at 10:48 pm #

    Great post! Thank you!

    If only I could paint as well as elephants…

  50. stilettoteez at 10:53 pm #

    That’s pretty amazing.

  51. lawurth1 at 3:25 am #

    I have never heard of painting elephants before! I would go picture crazy to see that in person.

  52. RBB at 3:30 am #

    What a heart warming post ! 🙂 Thank you

    You might like the Panda slide show on my blog (orginally BBC WS) Also smile inducing stuff!

    Here you go:-

    http://rightbrainblogger.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/creative-bliss/

    Best wishes,

    RBB

  53. *Artificial_Angel* at 6:32 am #

    That’s so cool! Real Talent on that Elephant.

  54. júlorena at 8:03 am #

    wow, cool!

  55. Di@ at 7:11 pm #

    Wow… How lovely… ❤

  56. squirrelsloveacorns at 8:52 pm #

    I love elephants! They are so intelligent. I watched a video of an elephant painting another elephant who was standing very near to them. So neat! Thank you for sharing this 🙂

  57. Mr.Saeed at 3:10 am #

    That’s fantastic

  58. afscience at 2:56 pm #

    Astonishing. I’m amazed not only by the elephant being able to paint, but just the fact that such a large, powerful creature can be taught to do such a thing.

    Thanks
    http://afscience.wordpress.com

  59. *R_D:))* at 7:38 pm #

    This is sooo amazing!! I’ve never heard that elephants can draw THAT good!! They are not just playing around with paintbrush… they are actually making some beautiful arts!!
    How can they draw that good with their trunks?? I mean, I draw with my hand(…duh), but their arts are waaaayy better than mine.

    SWEEEET:)<3

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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