- Time with NOVICA: 4 years 6 months
Debi is a young female elephant artist from Sumatra who took up painting in February of 2010, and is developing her own style.
For centuries, elephants earned their keep by hauling trees for Asia's logging industry. Deforestation and logging restrictions led to massive unemployment for the elephants, with the result that many, dependent on keepers who could no longer afford to care for them, simply died of neglect. The Asian elephant population dwindled, and these magnificent animals became an endangered species.
In 1998, searching for new ways to raise rescue funds and worldwide public awareness, elephant expert and author Richard Lair, advisor to the royal Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), conceived of a novel plan. He invited to Asia two media savvy, New York-based conceptual artists –Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid – to help him create a publicity campaign while training rescued Asian elephants to paint. Art Historian Mia Fineman traveled with Komar and Melamid to Asia, helping write "When Elephants Paint," a fascinating book about the venture. (The book notes that wild elephants naturally doodle on the ground with twigs and pebbles –a proclivity that might explain the ease with which they take to painting.)
Numerous elephants have since learned to paint in Asia, and hundreds if not thousands of news reports have brought the story of this endangered species to the world's attention.
During the painting sessions, the sanctuary elephants stand contentedly before easels, entertaining themselves by wrapping the tips of their trunks around artists' brushes, dipping those brushes into buckets of colorful paints, and then sweeping the paint up, down, and across paper canvases.
Some of the protégés of this fundraising project now rank among the most famous paintings elephants in the world. Their paintings, compared by some critics to the works of such renowned abstract expressionist artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, have been exhibited internationally and have auctioned for thousands of dollars apiece at such august venues as Christie's.
In 2002, Novica offered to assist by featuring the Asian elephants' paintings online, making them more accessible to the general public. Since then, a new wave of media attention has again focused on the plight of the Asian elephant, and thousands more people have purchased paintings – helping raise considerable funds for two conservation center, one in Bali and one in Thailand.
Update: Novica asked elephant expert Richard Lair about the legitimacy of a much-talked-about 2008 elephant "self portrait" (the making of which, at a Thai elephant camp, was captured on video). Lair explained that the elephant's "mahout" (handler) clearly directed the painting, standing just off-camera, holding the elephant's "tush" (small, sensitive tusk) to carefully guide the elephant's trunk in precise flourishes, creating the sensational result.