PRESS ROOM

Press Release - May 08, 2007

Washington Post - kidspost

Arty Animals

Orangutans, Elephants and Sea Lions Are Brushing Up on Their Paintings

Katya Arnold and Alex Melamid live in New York City and teach painting. Some of their students like big, bold strokes; others prefer fine, delicate lines. Some paint flowers and trees; others go for abstract, crazy-quilt designs. Some are very patient artists; others lose interest really fast.

Some are kids in New York. Others are elephants in Asia.

That's right. Arnold and Melamid, her husband, teach Asian elephants to paint. She has written a book about it called "Elephants Can Paint Too!"

But elephants aren't the only animals letting their inner van Gogh go.

Maggie, an 11-year-old sea lion at the zoo in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, paints for fish. Just like kid painters, animals like to receive praise and treats for their work. Maggie gets a tasty fish snack after a few brush strokes. Her trainer chooses the paint colors because Maggie, like other sea lions, is colorblind.

A half dozen orangutans and an Indian rhino at the San Diego Zoo in California also are painters. Some use brushes; the rhino paints with his lips!

The activity, which takes place out of public view, is a special treat for the animals. "It's something to keep them mentally stimulated," zoo spokeswoman Sharon Dewar said. "Some really enjoyed it. Some were bored to tears."

Janey, the zoo's 44-year-old orangutan, seems to enjoy it the most. Janey has done several colorful paintings in a style Dewar describes as "very abstract." Seven of Janey's works were auctioned last year, raising $2,650 for great-ape conservation projects, including one in Borneo, the island in Southeast Asia where Janey was born. Painting isn't Janey's only artistic talent. She also draws, weaves, and applies her own makeup, according to her MySpace page on the Web.

Arnold and Melamid's elephant students have had art shows in the United States, Europe and Asia. The money raised helps care for the shrinking number of Asian elephants.

It takes two weeks to a year to teach an elephant to paint, said David Ferris, director of the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project, which Melamid helped start 10 years ago.

At the time, new forest-protection laws in Thailand meant that many elephants had lost their jobs dragging heavy logs. They needed new "careers."

The artists decided to open elephant painting schools in Thailand and other Asian countries. So far, about 100 elephants have had a brush with artistic expression through the program. You can read more about it at www.elephantart.com.

How good are animal artists? More than 42,000 people attended an elephant-art exhibit in Australia in 2001, Ferris said. And last year, a large mural painted by six elephants sold for a record amount - $35,000. That's not exactly peanuts.

-Marylou Tousignant

 

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