Bai-tong is the youngest student in the elephant training school. She enjoys painting so much that she sometimes takes a firm grip on the paintbrush and refuses to return it to the trainer.
Bai-tong is a friendly little female who gets along well with people. When she arrived at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center-TECC on June 9, 2010, she was only about a year old. She had been given to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation because she needed special care to stay healthy.
After a thorough checkup by veterinarians, she met the mahout who would care for her and train her. He had to stay close to the little calf day and night. Despite her young age, she follows his orders very well.
Today she is the youngest student in the TECC elephant training school. Each morning, the pachyderms line up according to age, so she is the last in line. With her trunk, she grasps the tail of the elephant ahead of her and they all parade to the show field, to the delight of visitors to the center.
When she is in a good mood, she will shake her head and rock back and forth so the bell on her neck jingles. On chilly mornings, she gently tests the water with her foot or trunk, refusing to take a shower if the water is very cold. Her mahout must then bring her water in buckets to bathe. After her shower, she races home for breakfast. The intelligent little elephant has a preference for corn.
Bai-tong enjoys painting so much that she sometimes takes a firm grip on the paintbrush and refuses to return it to the trainer. She is much loved by the TECC staff and every tourist who has seen her.
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.)
As a result of Lair's project, numerous elephants 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.
Today, under the ongoing tutelage of Richard Lair, ten of the TECC's 48 elephants participate in regular painting sessions. During these 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.
The TECC artists are now 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 Richard Lair 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 thousand more people have purchased paintings — helping raise considerable funds for the TECC in Thailand, and for a separate rescue center in Bali.
Richard Lair provides Novica with the TECC's highest quality elephant paintings, directly overseeing special "Novica Sessions" with the TECC elephants. For these sessions, the elephants paint on French archival paper, using high quality acrylic paints. (This in contrast to the elephant paintings sold in Asia to tourists — typically composed of low-quality paints on non-archival paper.) Lair completes the process by embossing each painting with an official stamp of authenticity. For Novica, Lair comments that he rejects all but the most intriguing and unblemished paintings, as an additional way to thank Novica's customers for their considerable support, while providing a high quality painting in return.
Interestingly, the TECC is also home to the Thai Elephant Orchestra, the world's first elephant orchestra and the first orchestra in which animals play instruments (as opposed to their own song) with "serious musical intent." The Thai Elephant Orchestra, under the direction of Richard Lair and Dave Soldier, has produced three fundraising CDs, available through Amazon.
Meanwhile, Richard Lair continues his efforts to raise awareness and financial support for the elephants of Asia. In 2008, Lair traveled to Nepal to teach yet another group of eager elephant artists to paint, in the hopes that they, too, would enjoy learning how to help fund their own upkeep.
Novica asked Lair about the legitimacy of a much-talked-about 2008 elephant "self portrait" (the making of which, at a different 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.