Jojo stands in front of the canvas and stares, waiting for the spark of inspiration to guide the paintbrush. The 20-year-old is one of the most talented of his peers, producing critically acclaimed works, which have fetched thousands of dollars. Described by many as stubborn and willful, the young artist possesses a restlessness that propels his creative endeavors, which includes acclaimed work with both the xylophone and organ. The journey that now finds Jojo in front of the easel has been circuitous; filled with the pitfalls and struggles that many artists experience. Wayward and mischievous as a youth, he tries to harness that energy for imaginative purposes and focus on slow and deliberate movements in his art.
What makes the young artist unique, other than his distinctive paintings, is that he paints with an appendage unavailable for the majority of artists: a trunk. Jojo, all 9000 pounds of him, is a pachyderm at The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) in Lampang, Thailand. The 19-year-old institution is the only government-owned elephant camp in the country and is primarily focused on the well-being and care of Thailand’s elephants, 2,700 of which live on private grounds. Its existence points to a critical issue within the Southeast Asian nation, one that comes with circumstances singularly unique to Thailand.
Approximately 95 percent of Thailand’s elephants are domesticated. For centuries, the Thai people relied on their brawn and bulk to clear forest and cultivate farmland, similar to the use of oxen and horses around the world. This reliance resulted in adoration, the population revering the animal and its contributions to human life. The use of elephants in the logging industry dramatically increased in the past century with the goal of modernizing the country. Unfortunately, the destruction of vast swaths of forest not only removed a natural habitat for elephants but also weakened the natural defense against typhoons. In 1989, after a serious natural disaster related to the South Pacific storms, the government put a ban on logging, which, although ecologically beneficial, also put elephants out of a job. The consequence was a large number of elephants, now without the protection of human caretakers, competing for resources with local populations. And those four-legged competitors also had valuable tusks, making them targets for poachers willing to commit ghastly slaughters to turn a quick buck. The situation remains dire. Some scientific reports indicate the entire Thai elephant population will be wiped out by 2030 if a solution does not materialize.
For the TECC, the challenge is daunting: a dwindling animal population with little remaining natural habitat is on the verge of extinction and the organization is charged with saving a species. Needless to say, creative measures surely need to be used to accomplish the feat. And TECC is up to the task. The center has instituted a range of innovative programs that not only ensure the elephants’ safety and well-being, but also their happiness. And while it may seem like an ancillary goal, the mental and emotional health of the elephants is integral to their survival.
Not surprisingly, elephants possess the largest brain of any land animal. Long known for recollection skills, the pachyderms are highly intelligent, displaying a range of natural behaviors including joy, grief, altruism, compassion, and creativity. It is that psychological complexity, intertwined with social implications, which places a great deal of importance on mental health. With this in mind, TECC introduced stimulating activities for its residents which include sports, dancing, listening to music, and, as we discovered above, art classes.
But how do elephants learn to paint? Surely it must be some sort of gimmick; force fed through repetition and required to be performed on cue. In reality, elephants have a natural inclination to doodle and, as an example of their multifaceted personalities, often have been seen creating masterpieces in the dirt with sticks. Yet, paint brushes and easels present a specialized challenge for creatures without opposable thumbs. Luckily, Mother Nature has presented elephants with a wonderfully useful accessory (one that possesses as many muscles as the entire human body) to handle an array of tasks, including gripping an extension for artistic endeavors. And with a little help from their lifelong companion, a mahout, elephants learn not only how to hold the brush but also the special aspects of putting brush to canvas and the strength needed to do so.
But selling the art for money? Yes, The Elephant Art Gallery (TEAG) does precisely that. Working in conjunction with TECC, TEAG sells the paintings online, some for nearly $500. For animal activists and others courageously defending those that cannot defend themselves, TEAG seems like a perfect target, preying on defenseless animals to make a profit. Despicable, right? Well, actually, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Every protest voiced in the name of the elephants is met with realities of free will and aims towards conservation.
To those appalled that the elephants are trained to perform such acts, rest at ease knowing that the mahouts merely train their companion how to hold the brush, not what specific images or shapes to draw (as some elephant centers do). Those raising concern about forcing the elephants to paint are rebuked by the fact that easels are set up, paintbrushes loaded and artists left to their own creativity.
If the elephants do not want to paint, they simply move on to another activity. But like some of us, there are individuals who show real talent and most likely find pleasure in the creative outlet. Moral outrage expressed because of profits made by elephant labor is often soothed by the substantial amount of proceeds directed to TECC in order to take care of its residents. Just like many artists, their work goes to providing their own food and shelter, with TEAG acting as the facilitator for the sale. And while humans do benefit financially as well, it also serves to propel the business and work towards not only stimulating sales but also education of the problems Thai elephants face.
TEAG now showcases works of art by numerous TECC residents, many of who have developed their own unique abstract style. And as the artists continue to share their creative talents with the world, they also help to improve the situation for themselves and their species.
To find out more about elephant art in Thailand at the TEAG, follow their Facebook page here.
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About Michael Cavanagh
Michael Cavanagh is a freelance writer in search of memorable locales, delectable cuisine, and delicious drink. An experienced world traveler, Michael views globetrotting as an adventure like no other. He hopes to share his discoveries with other oenophiles, foodies, nomads, and travel enthusiasts. Michael has been published in The Wine Enthusiast, PalatePress, Destinations Travel Magazine, Terroirist, and has a regular column at Examiner.
*For another cool story on elephants in Chiang Mai check out our piece on PooPooPaper (yes you read correctly — PooPooPaper).