As he stands before his easel with a paint-laden brush, Nom Chok probably isn’t thinking about his early sorrows and good fortune—orphaned at birth, “enfant terrible of the elephant art world” by age three. Who knows what he’s thinking, if it should be called thinking?
Lucky is a painter now, too, but at six months old she was an orphaned wanderer. (Given the chance, she would have depended on her mother’s milk for at least two years.) She picks up her brushes with evident enthusiasm. The tuskless male Boon Rod seems to prefer dabbing at the paper to long strokes. He too was less than a year old, and injured by a land mine, when humans took charge of tending him. Scarred but healthy, he has lately created several more or less representational works: flowers, or trees. Or possibly jellyfish.
Lakshmi, captured from the wild for unknown reasons, lives with her daughter, Pooja. Her technique is her own: a different grip, more horizontal marks, the concluding consumption of a banana.
Provocative artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid conceived of teaching domesticated but underemployed Asian elephants to paint. Sales of work by elephant painters in Thailand, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka bring in badly needed funds for their food and space. Whether or not Nom Chok, Lakshmi, and the others find artistic satisfaction in their efforts, we can be sure of this much: using a brush and nontoxic paint is less strenuous than teak logging, now illegal; it’s safer and makes fewer enemies than raiding farmland; and the recognized alternative is begging in the streets. Besides, banana or sugarcane generally arrives at the end of the creative process. (As my own trainer, I’ve been known to use ice cream this way.) These elephants are stranded in human-dominated territory; why deny them a harmless chance at our intellectual pleasures?
In a shadowed part of my early memories dwells the image of Ziggy, chained and facing the back wall of his cage in the Brookfield Zoo elephant house. Ziggy had killed a man—no, he hadn’t, but he’d tried to. Permitted to live, he stared silently at concrete year after year, shifting his weight from two legs to the other two. He was ten feet tall, faceless and terrible. I wonder what he might have painted.
More cheeringly, I keep looking at my own Nom Chok, opus 114. Bright red, bright green. They mingle thickly in the middle. Here the red brush smacked against paper, moved a little drily downward, and left a curving tendril that points to a conclusive shove. There isn’t room for an elephant to turn in the clutter of our living room, but in it I can touch what he touched. I don’t know what passed through the mind of the animal, one of those warm, powerful, enormous beasts with a gaze like Abraham Lincoln’s, but here’s the result.
All over this land, students are taught that art is for and about self-expression. When you’re a teenager, that’s your calling anyway. Elephants have demonstrated, in human-designed experiments with mirrors, that they too possess some level of self-consciousness. And they express themselves to each other: Here I am not beaten with chains. I like you. I’m hungry. Let’s goof off.
But in terms of their painting activity, perhaps they are closer to a different source of artistic impulse, one that skips over the hair shirt of self-awareness and focuses outward: Let’s see what happens with this move. Let’s see what this paint will do.
Sarah Lindsay’s fourth book is Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower (Copper Canyon Press, 2013). She has received the 2012 Carolyn Kizer Prize, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize.