Elephant artists paint to save their species

Hong the Asian elephant may not realize it, but her paintings could help save her species from extinction. Hong's paintings, along with those of other Asian elephants, are now on view at the J Gallery in Rancho Santa Fe.

Del Mar residents Liz Allen and Mark Fangue, founders of ExoticWorldGifts.com, brought the elephant artists to the public's attention. The couple sells elephant paintings on their Web site and donates 30 percent of the sales to an artificial insemination program for Asian elephants.

"The Asian elephant is on the extinction list," Allen said. "They are declining rapidly and there are only 2000 left in Thailand due to the logging industry and an influx of the population."

Allen and Fangue travel the world and buy handicrafts of artists in developing countries in order to help the artists gain a sustainable income and get out of poverty. They sell the artist's work on their Web site. While on a business trip to Thailand, they watched Hong make a painting at the Maetaman Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai. Astounded, they captured her abilities on film.

"We were so amazed to see her paint a realistic elephant with a flower that we bought the painting and put the video on YouTube after we arrived home," Allen said.

That YouTube video generated so much interest that the elephant paintings available on their Web site sold out within three hours. To date, the video has had millions of hits.

Hong and her fellow elephant artists are about to receive even more exposure. Allen and Fangue recently returned to Thailand with a National Geographic crew to film a TV special showing how the sales of elephant paintings benefit the camp's conservation efforts. In addition, a film crew from "Animal Planet" recently visited the J Gallery to film a show on the paintings.

According to Allen, European gallery owners visiting Southern Thailand more than 10 years ago were the first people to try to teach the elephants how to hold their brushes and paint. The director of the Maetaman Camp visited that camp to learn the teaching techniques and then taught her mahouts (elephant caretakers) how to work with the elephants.

"Their training process is similar to teaching a child how to write the alphabet, Allen said. "It takes a lot of practice, but the elephants can naturally do dots and lines and abstract art."

According to Allen, there are 65 elephants at the Maetaman Camp, but only nine of them show an interest in painting. The painting process is a collaborative effort with the elephant and the mahout, and an elephant must be in the mood to do it. The elephants go through their daily routine and have a bath and food first, so they are in a very relaxed state before starting to paint.

The mahout sets up an easel, and if an elephant wants to paint, he will carry his bucket and brushes over to begin work. The elephant and mahout have a very close bond with each other and work through voice and touch commands. In a way, the mahout must know how to paint because he is instructing the elephant how to move the brush, whether that be left, right or up or down. The mahout chooses the color for the brush and puts the paint on it before handing it to the elephant.

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