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I've been reading the postings regarding Ruby, the Painting Elephant, with
some interest and felt the urge to respond. I just did a slide presentation
on the phenomenon of "animal artists" at the San Fran conference based on a
year or so of research. If you'll indulge me for a few moments, I'd like to
share some thoughts regarding "animal artists" I presented at that session:
I began this research in an attempt to answer the question "Can cats (or
animals in general) really paint?" Like Mark (and I'm sure others on this
list), I've introduced the notion of animals making art in my classes.
Before doing this research, I was quick to dismiss the whole notion for
reasons similar to that which Sandra proposed (i.e., that artists are
sentient beings and that art requires "intention.") At this point, I'm
much more open to the possibility that human beings are not the only
species on this earth capable to aesthetic feelings and creative responses.
I appreciate Henry bringing up the bowerbird which Ellen Dissanayake
discusses in her book "Homoaestheticus." We must also consider the large
body of work that has been done with ape and chimpanzee "artists" over the
past 40 years (See Desmond Morris' book The Biology of Art for an in-depth
account of some of the pioneering work done in this area). In Florida a
dolphin named "Sunset Sam" gained national attention a few years back for
his "painting" activities. (I visited Sam recently and found out that he
stopped painting recently when Helana, a female dolphin was introduced into
his tank...sounds very Freudian to me 8^)
Ruby is not the only elephant that has taken up painting. A number of
captive elephants around the US and a broad have taken up painting to pass
the time (as a "leisure time" activity?) Typically, zoo elephants are put
through a daily routine of training exercises. There are also a number of
"fun" things added into the elephants' routines to keep the animals from
getting bored--including painting.
Why Painting? Its been observed that elephants (both captive and in the
wild) sometimes use sticks to draw in the dirt and will sometimes engage in
stacking activities with rocks. So, it didn't take to much to get them
involved in painting.
Several explanations have been offered to explain why Ruby paints. Bil
Gilbert, who wrote the article on Ruby in Smithsonian, said the answer is
obvious--because it gives her pleasure. Others suggest the motor activity
of painting and the visual stimulation of the paint is sensually painting.
Still another explanation--Its something to do!
Gilbert offers another intriguing possibility: . . "there is no evidence
to rule out the possibility that Ruby has a powerful urge to depict, with
color and line, her vision of what she and other things are."
Is it so far-fetched to think that these animals may be able to "express"
something through art. As David GUS-Wa (who worked with a elephant artist
named Siri at the Burnet Park zoo in Syracuse) wrote in his book To Whom It
"Once you understand that an animal's intelligent, it's not illogical to
suspect that it might be creative."
It was this belief that led Russian artists Komar & Melamid to initiate a
collaborative project this past year with Renee an African elephant at the
Toledo Zoo. K&M are well known for their collaborative art. A few years
ago, they did a project involving American tastes in art called The
People's Choice awards. K&M are publishing a limited edition of silkscreens
plus 12 artists proofs based on their work with Renee. The Zoo will get
40% of the proceeds from the sale of the work. (See the march 96 issue of
Print Collector for an article on this project)
While I began this research to answer the question "can animals make art?"
I had also hoped to raise a chuckle. You see I had this idea for Zoo-Based
Art Education (ZBAE) and a catchy solgan "out of the classroom and into the
But, I've come to realize that there may be something of significance here
for art educators.
At the very least, the fact that some animals engage in "artistic-like"
behaviors suggests that our urge to create may be biological in nature. I
don't claim authorship of this idea. Dissanyaka has discussed this notion
before in her books and at our conference in Atlanta.
Also, in our concern for promoting "multi-cultural" understanding, we must
consider that we share this earth with countless other species of infinite
grace and intelligence. I'm reminded here of my time sitting by the tank
with Sunset Sam. . .a remarkable creature.
Consider that there has been increasing interest among researchers and
animal behaviorists in the intelligence of animals. This research had
already dissolved many of our misconceptions about the intelligence of
animals. Is it possible that animals have creative moods, ideas and
talents that deserve to be sincerely explored? I now believe so.
I've rambled on far longer than I had intended and there's so much more to
say. But, in closing, I do want to point out that Desmond Morris used the
term "infra-species" art in referring to ape art. In this age of pc, I'm
reluctant to accept this term which suggests that art made by animals is
"beneath" art made by humans. I think its interesting to note that all
these celebrated animals own their "artistic" awakenings to a dedicated
human coach. Thus, I use the term "inter-species" art to refer to this
genre in recognition of its collaborative nature.
So that all of this is read in a proper context, I want to share a quote
from David Gucwa:
"among other things, consideration of elephant art should be fun."
In wonder of it all,
University of Florida