Nua-un is a close friend of Aleena, another elephant artist. When Nua-un was young, she would often sneak away from her mother to play with Aleena.
Nua-Un is a female elephant whose real name is Phang Malinee. But the mahout and officers at the Thai Elephant Conservative Center-TECC where she was born call her Nong-Nua-un, Nong is a traditional Thai title for younger women. Nua-un derives from Mae-Nua-un, which means "beloved woman."
She was born on June 12, 2004, the second child of Phang Singkhorn and Seedaw Tadaeng. Nua-un has an elder brother, Phlai Kaew, born in 2001, and a younger sister, Phang Kelang, born in 2012. Little Phang Kelang still lives with her mother; both sleep in the TECC jungle area and come back to the central courtyard early each morning. Their mom, Phang Singkhorn, has been chosen as the leader for elephant students.
Nua-un is very intelligent and also mischievous. Her mahout, Numtao, is highly respected because his father was also a mahout. He has taken care of Nua-un since she was born. People say that the elephant and its mahout will have similar habits and they do. Both are smart, friendly and joyful.
Nua-un likes eating a lot, so now she weighs more than she should. In this way, she differs from Numtao, as mahouts must not be overweight. The TECC officers arranged a weight-loss course for the elephant that includes running around the center.
When Nua-un is naughty, Numtao will not let her eat grass. So she will only touch the grass because she knows he's angry with her. Then, when she is once more allowed to eat grass, she eats a lot for very long time. Nua-un sometimes takes her mahout's hat, fills her trunk with water and sprays him.
Nua-un is a close friend of Aleena, another Novica-featured elephant artist. When Nua-un was young, she would often sneak away from her mother to play with Aleena. To this day, both elephants like to snuggle with each other.
Nua-un is one of the elephant school show members on the demonstration field. She can stoop down with her forefeet, do painting exhibits, and show off her basic skills very well.
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 painting 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 thousands 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 results.