Press Release - October 11, 2007


By Teresa Annas
The Virginian-Pilot

In late summer even maritime artists, accustomed to coastal breezes, can get sluggish from the heat. Not so, Munchkin.
She's shorter than the dwarf Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, an artist from a century past. Munchkin is 22 inches tall, famous for her everyday tux and, while she doesn't appear to think too much about art, certainly goes at it with zest.

Munchkin's fun-loving personality made her the obvious choice to be the artist among her fellow South African Black-footed penguins, who are visiting the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach through Labor Day.

She's only one of the animal artists in town.

Following an international trend, local zoos and aquariums are turning into art academies for critters. The aquarium's harbor seals also paint pictures, as do the elephants at the Virginia Zoological Park in Norfolk and some snakes and turtles at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News.

Starting this weekend, a Williamsburg gallery is staging the first mid-Atlantic showing of art by elephants in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. The 25 paintings at Prince George Art & Frame were provided by the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project.

Not surprisingly, the elephants did not attend the reception Friday night. Gallery owner Fred Miller said more than 200 art lovers showed up, many of them curious what an elephant might have to express.

Miller said he hoped most of the 25 artworks - priced from $450 to $600 - would sell. Nearly all of the money will go to the New York-based nonprofit, he said; Miller said he would take half his usual commission on sales.

"I doubt we'll cover our expenses," which included framing the art and advertising the show, Miller said. "We want to sell these things, because that's how they'll make money."

The money from most animal art projects goes back to the creatures, many of which are endangered, and to the organizations that help them survive in a world with too little wilderness.

The Asian elephant project supports more than 25 elephants and their mahouts - or caretakers - who have been taught by the organization to train the elephants to paint. It's a safe, comparatively easy way for the creatures to make a living, said David Ferris, the project's director, who has visited the elephants and photographed and videotaped them painting.
In Thailand alone, more than two-thirds of all elephants are domesticated; many once worked long, hard hours in the logging industry, which was banned in 1989. Some were reduced to begging in the streets with their mahouts, Ferris said.

He said the elephants do all the artwork; the mahouts load the brushes with the paint. Many of the mammals have a recognizable style, Ferris said. "Some elephants tend toward vertical brush strokes. Some make arcing motions. Others just do dots, like a pointillist painter."

Thursday afternoon, Miller admired the elephants' works, pointing at one by Larnkam, a 9-year-old male elephant from Thailand. The piece indicated amazing control of the brush, given that it was wielded by Larnkam's trunk. Red, blue, green and yellow strokes began at the same point on the white paper and spread up and out, giving the effect of flowers in a vase.

"He took Picasso lessons, I think," Miller said, chuckling.

Munchkin - about the size and shape of some ducks - was lured from her display Thursday morning at the Virginia Aquarium by one of her caretakers, who carried her to her studio. Concrete floors and aquarium equipment made the room less than attractive to and artist's sensibility.

In March, the staff started toying with how to get Munchkin painting. First they tried brushing paint on her feet, but she flicked it off. By April Fool's Day, said Crystal Matthews, curator of birds, they found a way that worked.

"We try to do it a couple of times a week," Matthews said - but animal art sessions at the Virginia Aquarium are not made public.
Caretakers spread purple paint on a cardboard square lying on the floor next to three small canvases.

"Ready, Munchkin?" A caretaker picked her up by her middle, pressed her feet in the nontoxic paint, then released her. She raced away gleefully, flippers out, leaving purple footprints in her wake.

Maybe half the prints got on the canvas, causing the group to cheer, as Munchkin looked back with a coy expression. Then she shook her head, which the caretakers said is a premating ritual indicating contentment.

A few minutes later, Norton, one of the aquarium's harbor seals, was readied for an art session. Unlike the penguins and the Virginia Living Museum's snakes and turtles - which have their bodies and feet painted and then are let loose on clean paper - seals use a more sophisticated method.

Norton gripped a paint-filled brush in his mouth as Karen Nevin, mammal trainer, held up a canvas. The seal made three sweeping strokes, then dropped the brush, awaiting his treat.

"It keeps them active, keeps them thinking," Nevin said. "First we had to teach them how to hold the brush in their mouths, then how to move their heads, then to touch the canvas with the paintbrush."

That's typical of how more intelligent animals are taught, with each step rewarded.

Norton appeared most enthusiastic about the chunks of fish he was fed before and after every painting he made on Thursday.

Since the seals began making art in the fall of 2005, the aquarium store has rung up $15,000 in sales of the pieces, called "Seal signatures," which go for $89.95 to $179.95. "Penguin Prints" sell for $49.95 to $69.95. Proceeds go to the aquarium's stranding center and to the seals and penguins. In addition, the aquarium sells mugs and T-shirts bearing the art, which benefit aquarium operations.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and international organization based in Maryland, does not track statistics on art made by animals. "But we are noticing more artwork," the group's spokesman, Steve Feldman, said. "It's enrichment for the animals; gives them something interesting to do. In the case of elephants or apes, it's clearly an expression of their intelligence and creativity," Feldman said, who added that those animals "express preferences in color and shapes, the preferences that artists express.

"In the case of penguins and snakes moving across a page, you might not say that. But the tracks and markings they make are still opportunities to educate people about those animals, and they're often very nice to look at."

Greg Bockheim also thinks so. He's director of the Virginia Zoo and a collector of animal-made art for more than a decade. All three of the Norfolk zoo's elephants paint during occasional special tours to raise zoo funds. The elephants' art was auctioned in April during a fundraiser, earning about $5,000 for the zoo.

"It is awesome," Bockheim said. "People love to paint with our elephants."

The art itself, he said, "has gained a sophistication as a kind of outsider art," which means self-taught art.
"That's really what your animal artist is."

Teresa Annas, (757) 446-2485

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