Elephant Artists in the United States
By Abby Slutsky — November 19, 2010
Art therapy and creativity are not just for humans. In 1995, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, while in the United States, began teaching an elephant named Renee how to paint.
Elephants can learn to hold a paintbrush in their trunks and paint on canvas. On a day when artist elephants are creative, lucky visitors at a few zoos across the United States can watch these artists at work. Amazingly, similar to human artists, artist elephants have their own unique styles and temperaments. Additionally, although elephants can learn to paint, they must have a passion and interest.
One of the first of the “painting elephants” was ruby, an asian elephant of the Phoenix zoo. Ruby (1973–November 6, 1998) weighed 4.5 tons and became famous thanks to her paintings. Her most expensive painting sold for $25,000.
Tourists unable to see one of the few elephant artists in the United States can still purchase elephant art through the Cincinnati Zoo, online and at some galleries and auctions.
Painting and Lessons
Interested elephants learn painting at their own rate. Sometimes trainers attach bamboo sticks to paint brushes to make them easy to hold. Elephants typically paint with nontoxic vegetable oil based paints.
Why is Elephant Artistry Beneficial?
Animals in captivity are often bored. In addition, since they have food and shelter, they do not have the stimulating duties of providing life’s necessities for themselves. Providing elephants with a creative outlet occupies them and makes them more content, less dangerous animals. Additionally, elephants are expensive to care for, and sales from elephant artists help contribute to the costs of their care. Christie’s auctions sold elephant artwork for several thousand dollars.
Artist Elephants in the United States
Rick Heithaus, an elephant trainer at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, stated that 38 year-old Asian elephant Mai Thai is an elephant artist at the zoo. Mai Thai paints abstract art when patrons choose to order artwork. Purchasers can choose up to three colors that will be incorporated in the picture painted by Mai Thai. Artwork painted by Mai Thai can be ordered online through the Cincinnati Zoo. The first elephant that Komar and Melamis taught to paint in the United States resides at the Toledo Zoo. Renee, an African elephant, is still painting murals and pictures. Her work is currently for sale online.
Renee in action at the toledo zoo. Her son louis also enjoys painting.
United States Deceased Elephant Artists
Before Komar and Melamid became involved in teaching elephants how to paint, the Phoenix Zoo housed an Asian elephant named Ruby that enjoyed painting. When Ruby came to the zoo, she seemed bored and often used a stick to draw in dirt. A trainer introduced Ruby to painting, which she enjoyed. In 1998, Ruby was put to sleep after veterinarians discovered she had an infection due to pregnancy complications.
A painting by ruby the elephant.
There are only a few elephant artists in the United States, but tourists lucky enough to know where they are may be able to see these majestic and talented animals. Elephant art ranges in price from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars depending on the piece and the artist.
Abby Slutsky is a freelance writer and poet whose work appears both on the Internet and in print (she has had articles published in Sasee Magazine and Learning Through History). She has a BA in English writing from the University of Pennsylvania, a Masters in Education from Chestnut Hill College and a Juris Doctorate from Boston University. In her spare time, she volunteers for a hospice, plays Mah Jongg and shuttles her two boys to USTA junior tennis tournaments. A resident of Pennsylvania, she enjoys cake decorating, writing and traveling.