Elephants Can Paint Too!
Written and Illustrated by Katya Arnold
Anne Schwartz/Atheneum Books for Young Readers
This is a wonderful book for parents to read to young children. It tells the true story of elephants trained to make paintings. "I teach in two schools," Katya Arnold writes. "One is in the city. The other is in the jungle. Some of my students have hands. Others have trunks."
Arnold is an artist and a teacher at St. Ann's School in Brooklyn, and "Elephants can Paint Too!" features photographs of both children and elephants painting. (Young readers will be fascinated by how an elephant holds the paintbrush - with a crossbar added to the handle, the animal can hold it in its trunk.) With her husband, the artist Alex Melamid, Arnold became interested in the plight of elephants in Asia that had lost the traditional jobs they once performed. When Thailand cut back on logging, for example, at least 3,000 domesticated elephants were no longer needed for hauling felled tree. What to do with all those elephants no longer earning their keep? Arnold and Melamid got the idea to establish schools to teach elephants to paint, and their foundation sells the pictures on its Web site.
Is elephant art real art? This book includes only about a half-dozen examples of elephant paintings, so I went to the Web site, www.elephantart.com, where the work of about 21 elephants is posted, to look at more. Since the latest research shows that many vegetarian mammals are partially colorblind, I printed out the pictures in black and white; I was interested in looking for patterns because I did not want to be distracted by colors that elephants may see differently from us. (Also, the book doesn't make clear whether the trainers choose the colors or whether the elephants do.)
Many of the elephants make aimless drawings, but it seemed to me that a few are creating real patterns. Not only that - an elephant named Gongkam had painted highly realistic pictures of various flowers; one bunch with long stems looked like irises. Another elephant, Larnkam, had made both flowers and swirling abstract designs; several looked a bit like intertwined double helixes. These were in contrast to the art I saw on a couple of other Web sites, done by elephants in zoos, where almost all the work looked like scribbling. It is interesting that the best elephant artists seemed to be young, only 4 or 5 years old; it's likely that many zoo animals are much older and it may be more difficult for them to learn.
Judging by the work in "Elephants Can Paint Too!," each elephant has a definite painting style. Some use long strokes and others dab the paint on in spots. Many are hesitant at first, but they gradually develop a technique. (Of course, a few elephants are not interested in painting at all and may eat the brush.)
A skeptical reader might ask, did an elephant paint a bunch of flowers only because it was cued by its trainer? It's impossible to say without seeing the elephants in action - and without knowing whether they can paint equally well when their regular trainers are absent. But one thing is certain: even scribbling is an enriching experience for an elephant. They are extremely intelligent animals and in captivity they need something to do.
My only criticism of this book is that it could have included more information about the painting program, and also more examples of elephant art. But "Elephants Can Paint Too!" should enthrall children and get them interested in animals and nature.