The anticipation of the crowd grew as Numchoke held his paintbrush high, ready to strike on a clean white canvas. He brandished a smooth stroke in rich turquoise, encountering some friction as the tip of his brush moved downward to form the slight curve of an elephant trunk. A self-portrait, perhaps? The crowd cheered in amazement as they watched the elephant paint.
But can elephants really make art? Aren't elephants actually colorblind? While Numchoke continued to impress the crowd with his ostensible painting skills, standing next to him was his trainer, or mahout, Mr. Koboon. As Numchoke drew with his brush, Mr. Koboon tugged on his ear to control his trunk movement.
Mr. Koboon explained that the concept is not so much 'art by elephant' but rather the idea of 'art through elephant'—using the elephant as a tool in a collaboration among the artist, the mahout, and a trained elephant. "A one plus one plus one equals one project," Mr. Koboon stated. It begins with the artist. The artist would produce a design, imagine the shades, style and layout, before giving it to the mahout, who would be responsible for figuring out how to communicate the details of the painting process to the elephant. This coalescence of an artist's impression and mahout's interpretation, combined with the idiosyncratic abilities of the elephant itself, can essentially be described as painting through an 'elephant filter'. The final product is distinct from the initial concept as the influence of both the mahout's ability to command the elephant and the mechanical dexterity of the elephant itself alter the piece to give it an unconventional, yet inimitable beauty. This process is only complicated by the fact that elephants can only paint in up and downward strokes, so sometimes the mahout has to flip the canvas in order to get a certain lining.
These artist elephants, including Numchoke, were trained at the age of two. Usually baby elephants are put in training just before they reach the age of three, which is when they become stubborn and difficult to train. Once a baby elephant is born, he or she is assigned a mahout who stays with the elephant to observe it grow. During training, the bond of trust created between the elephant and his mahout becomes the key factor that allows these elegant creatures to execute the artists' vision, and perform what they are asked to do.
Before getting into any kind of specific training, however, each elephant undergoes all the basic lessons in performing. While some, like Numchoke, are gifted painters, some are born performers. The mahout Mr. Wichai says that his elephant, Punlann, hates painting. After making just a few blots on the canvas, Punlann would throw the brush away. "Punlann is more of a dancer," explains Mr. Wichai.
Numchoke and many others belong to the Wang Chang Ayutthaya Lae Paniad, an elephant kraal dating as far back as the 16th century, located north of Ayutthaya, Thailand. It was established under the reign of King Maha Thammaracha, during which the elephants were trained—not for the kind of artistic creation they do now—but for military duty. Yet the drastic decline in elephant population in recent years has turned this training field into an elephant conservatory. In 1996, a major economic crisis in Thailand gave birth to what's now known as the "elephant art" program. During that difficult year, elephants and mahouts became street beggars, wandering around for money on the busy streets of Bangkok. To help preserve these elegant creatures and provide better job opportunities for them and their mahouts, the elephant program was established, starting as a collaboration between two Russian artists, Mr. Komar and Mr. Melamid, and the Wang Chang Ayutthaya Lae Paniad elephant karaal. Today, the most creative of these elephant paintings sell for more than a thousand baht. Perhaps it is only a pen, but it is more than enough to save these creatures from the streets.