In the city of New York, there is no such thing as a wrong turn. As I was walking down the street, looking for an address, I stumbled upon an Elephant Art Gallery, located at 566 Lorimer St. Since I can remember, I've had a deep appreciation for elephants because of the wisdom and kindness they represent. But I had never heard of elephants making art much less of a gallery dedicated to showcasing it. I chatted with David Ferris, the executive director of the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Program in Williamsburg, and learned about his fascinating mission of protecting Asian elephants through art and fashion.
How did the project come to be?
For many years, Asian elephants were employed in logging the lush teak forests of Thailand and its neighboring countries. This was until 95% of the forests were completely cleared. In 1990, the Thai government finally banned logging within its borders in an effort to save what little forest was left. Although the ban was very much needed, it left thousands of captive elephants and their mahouts unemployed. Also, as sad and ironic as it seems, the elephants essentially helped humans to destroy their own habitat, thus leaving them with no wild to return to. As such, the elephants fell into a basic state of neglect, either being used in illegal logging or begging for handouts on city streets. Similar situations are still occurring today all across Southeast Asia, most acutely now in Cambodia and Indonesia.
In response to this dilemma, pioneering artists Alexander Melamid and Vitaly Komar began teaching elephants in Asia how to paint. The resulting paintings became a source of income for the elephants and their mahouts (people who ride elephants.)
Explain how elephants are physically and mentally stimulated by this process of artistic creation?
Elephants are exceptionally smart animals and the extent of their intelligence is being realized more every day. Scientific studies have recently discovered that elephants are self aware (they can recognize themselves in a mirror), they use tools, they understand how to cooperate with other elephants to achieve goals, and they comprehend the abstract idea of pointing.
The initial teaching of elephants to paint began in U.S. zoos as a way to keep the elephants cognitively active and mentally stimulated. Now with elephants in Asia capable of painting, the daily or weekly activity of painting has become, if nothing less, an enrichment exercise for the elephants. Teaching an elephant to paint, as well as the painting sessions themselves are based on a positive reinforcement model. As such, the elephant receives treats and praise for mark making. They very much enjoy their painting sessions, but whether they are truly trying to express themselves, we can not definitively say. Nevertheless, the potential is there that they are gaining the skills or understanding to do so. We, as people, have much to learn.
How do you reach out to the community that is not involved in art or fashion?
We try to get the word out about our cause through our website, www.elephantart.org, our Facebook page, the new gallery, as well as through various partnerships and temporary exhibitions. The project is as much about education and awareness as it is about art and conservation. We do our best to educate the public of the difficulties that elephants face, to help the elephants that we can, and to better educate elephant owners and mahouts of proper and humane care practices.
Let's talk about eco-design. How did the evolution from art to fashion happen?
Since our founding in 1998, the AEACP had been focused on art in a traditional sense, meaning galleries, museums, etc. While this is still the main focus of our fundraising and awareness, around 2007, we started to brainstorm about other ways in which to raise awareness and funding for the project. Living and working in Soho over the years, I would witness the ebb and flow of high fashion as it came and went. At some point, I think I saw some "painterly" dress in a magazine and began to connect the dots. We ran a few tests before realizing that the potential was there for the elephants to paint on raw fabric with fabric paint, then to have designers create garments from the painted fabric. In 2008, I partnered with LA designer, Mychelle Vollrath-Mordente, to put together The Trunk Show: Elephant Art Fashion Show. We had 20 different designers create 25 different dresses for the runway show. The resulting pieces were really quite stunning. Since then, we have been working on men’s ties, T-shirts, dresses, etc. Our move into the world of fashion has allowed us to get our message to a somewhat different person or market than traditional painting does.
Any future plans that you'd like to share?
The opening of our new gallery in Williamsburg has been exciting for us as it is the first time that we have had a permanent exhibition space in which to present the elephant paintings. Beyond that, we continue to partner with other organizations and companies to find new and exciting ways to raise funds and awareness for the elephants and their plight. The funds we raise will go toward projects such as the Millennium Elephant Foundation boundary fence in Sri Lanka. The fence will provide elephants there with a much improved quality of life. We are in the midst of a capital campaign for this cause.