It’s well documented that monkeys can paint and do other creative things. Less well known are the artistic elephants at various zoos throughout the world. You may have heard of The Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project in which Thai, Indian and Cambodian elephant-art raises funds for endangered South-Asian pachyderms. A mural by “Mandan,” for example, was recently sold for $8500. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado is offering Lucky’s trunkprints and Kimba’s footprints. These are reasonably priced conversation pieces suitable for home or office. Both Asian and African elephants are happier and live more enriched lives because of this art movement.
In more avant-garde circles, earthworms and other annelids have been pressed into the service of art. Worms, when left in paint and given some time are capable of remarkable Pollock-like effects. Currently, there’s a trend to explore the artistry of insects. Last year at the Tate Modern in London, England, I saw a “World Wide Flag” installation conceived and presented by Japanese-American artist Yukinori Yanagi. It was entirely the work of ants.
With our own talented family it’s only natural that one of our pets might show ability. Our son Dave and his wife Tamara have such a one in their Airedale “Stanley.” Working mainly in non-toxic acrylics, Stanley prefers wet-in-wet and alla prima. He has a special easel that is best set up outdoors on moist days. Small pieces of cheese are placed on a shelf at the top of the easel. Stanley steps forward putting his paws onto the palette area, then jumps up on the canvas to get the cheese. Paws make remarkably expressive brushes. A paintbrush duct-taped to his wagging tail has been less satisfactory. Stanley moves fast — sometimes he’ll do two or three 24″ x 30″s in a session.
Stanley, of necessity, is an abstract expressionist. We have to be careful that he doesn’t overwork things. As in elephant-art, a human has to stand by, make a judgment call, and take the work away at the appropriate time. Stanley is fairly excitable and the surrounding area can become quite a mess. After he’s finished, he has to be hosed, which is the only part of the process he doesn’t like. It’s my job to sign his work. While Stanley knows his name, he’s not able to actually write it.
PS: “Don’t kid yourself Dad, it’s not the art, it’s the cheese.” (Dave Genn)
Esoterica: Kamala, an Asian elephant at the Calgary Zoo, just completed her 500th painting. It sold on eBay for $1,175. The money will go toward renovating and enlarging her enclosure. She shares her space with her daughter, Maharani, a friend, Swarna, and a bull elephant by the name of Spike. The Calgary Zoo Elephant Painting Program brings in over $50,000 a year towards the betterment of incarcerated elephants. Like Stanley the Airedale, Kamala the Elephant also has trouble knowing when to stop painting. As Picasso said, “In order to be a painter, you need to know how to paint, and when to stop.”
The art of Stanley (Airedale)
Problem with painting for cheese
by Dianne Harrison, Roswell, GA, USA
I laughed out loud in the early hours of the day when I read about Dave and Tamara’s painting pet. I also realized that when any of us “paint for the cheese” we will likely lose interest sooner or later, but he sure did look dashing in that outfit. You certainly raised this animal’s spirits with that whimsical, happy letter. Thanks again for being a positive influence in this artist’s life. How many animal abuse accusations did you get?
(RG note) Thanks, Dianne. Lots. We wrote to many of them and noted that Stanley is never discomforted during his art-making (other than the hosing, which he gets regularly anyway for other reasons.) Stanley enjoys attention — any sort of attention. As we speak, Stanley is appearing proudly in public as his recent painting, Paws in Time, now framed and varnished, is raising funds for the SPCA.
Artist more important than the art
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, VA, USA
Animal art seems to bring in the big bucks! I suppose that is because of who they are. I always did say when you buy the art, you buy the artist’s life. I suppose that may be one of the reasons for my strangeness. Also these animals paint as one should, without too much thinking. They just paint. It took Jackson Pollock a while not to think only as a child but as an animal.
Art going to the dogs
by Hans Werner, Australia
It is amazing to me to what lengths the “Art” world goes these days, whether it is digital, machine made, or produced by animals. It all has nothing to do with art. It merely attracts a “novelty value” and should be labeled as such. What’s next? Maybe blood and guts as art in the Middle East?
Who’s the pig here?
by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada
There is a Pig who is an artist and sells his work more than many of us. He even learned how to sign his paintings! His owner is the art supplier, art director and art dealer. The owner of that Pig has been taking care of him as he is a good source of revenue. All the Pig has to do is paint, day and night, and his needs will be taken care of. The owner is making big bucks. I wonder if this sounds familiar to some artists who are only painting and simply receive their needs from art dealers! Apparently, the Pig has no other choice but to be grateful for receiving his necessities!
Problems with dogsploitation
by Les Ducak, Burlington, ON, Canada
It’s about time that the animals stop freeloading and earn their keep. However, this can create some problems. At what age do you put the pet to “work”? If too young, you may be accused of exploitation of the “minor.” Then the PETA can get involved and lawyers will be waiting in the wings. As for Stanley being hosed, I think I speak for many artists when I say we know how he feels. Which one of us hasn’t been hosed? Let’s hope pets won’t form a union, with all the benefits and entitlements accorded to them. As for the subject of thinking vs. not thinking, I recall a famous philosopher once said, “I think, therefore I am.” Logically, the opposite must be true: “I think not, therefore I am not.”
by Becky Hicks, New Braunfels, TX, USA
You really did it this time. I can feel the tide of animal rights activists blasting your way even from down here in Texas! That get-up on poor Stanley is really going to tick a lot of people off, especially the duct tape thing on the tail! I’m sure that Stanley didn’t have a say in the matter, but I betcha you’ll hear from a ton of folks who want to advocate for him. What were you thinking? Don’t you know that stripes are out of fashion this year?
Cat interferes with painting
by Valerie Norberry, Kalamazoo, MI, USA
Sounds like you are barking up the right tree. Didn’t Cheetah from Tarzan do some famous primate paintings? My cats both did some art last week. I was doing a watercolor of a goldfish pond, kind of an extra to the house portrait I was working on. Thought maybe I could throw in the WC painting hoping for a “tip.” Anyway, don’t you know both cats decided to take a shortcut across my table that the painting was drying on. Hence a few green clouds and some green paws on my white and tiger cats. It would have been funny but I was really hoping to get some remuneration from the painting. When I went to show the sketches of the house to my customer and pulled out the dried painting with the green clouds, did not get much response, even when I told her and him that the cats helped to paint it. Some people just don’t have a sense of humor.
Art takes a licking
by John Fitzsimmons, Fayetteville, NY, USA
You gave me an idea that maybe I will try this weekend. Stanley uses the conventional “Additive” process, i.e., he adds paint to the canvas to make the image. Of course this process limits the results to the Abstract Expressionist’s vein. My idea is to create the image using a variety of foods, the most liked food may be a masking layer, the next liked when licked away will reveal part of the image, next liked, more of the image and so on. Finally the last of the image may be little licked but still edible food that when eaten will finally eliminate the image entirely. A more advanced version could actually reveal an animated image that would move as it is eaten away. To get a reasonable speed, several hungry dogs may have to be employed. I will keep you informed. This process will be called “Alpo Expressionism.”
Horsing around with art
by Candace Liddy, Excelsior, MN, USA
I have recently been involved in having race horses paint pictures and the motivation used for Stanley might help them too. The paintings are done for Rerun, the Thoroughbred Retirement Organization that finds homes for retired racehorses so they do not have to go to auctions, glue factories, etc. They use champions and famous horses to paint “Moneighs” (*tm) that are sold and auctioned for funding. The horses are all very different as to how they approach their art. Some dive right in, even holding brushes and have a ball pushing the paint around. Most use their nose, curious about the globs of tempera on the plate, then push their noses into it and it eventually gets rubbed or smeared around on the paper. Even their tails are used as brushes with a little help. The funniest is when an occasional big macho stud finds the paper plate daunting. Not only won’t they investigate the paint, they won’t go near the plate. Then their hoof is held up and the shoe is painted and placed back on the ground on the paper for a hoof print. I have seen them deliberately put the foot down anywhere but on the paper time after time, which frustrates the helpers.
Dancing dogs make art by the pack
by TD Yandt, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
I’m on the board of AASK; Animal Assistants of Saskatchewan Inc. As one of our fundraisers we had all the dogs in the program participate in paw paintings. Some of the work was quite beautiful. I’ve purchased a couple of them myself. We still have some that we held back for yet another sale. Everyone who participated in the painting process had a lot of fun. We rolled out large sheets of white paper. We dipped the dog’s paws into non-toxic paint, and lured them across the papers using clickers and treats. On one sheet — for something different — we sponge painted the background in blues and oranges before having the dogs (in black paint) dance across the room.
Author of letter confused
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
You cannot really be that confused about the differences between art and silly pet tricks? The problem is, Robert, that many people are! You, of course, understand that art is not defined as the simple application of pigment to a surface. That meager definition leaves out the very crux of a reasonable understanding of art, wherein metaphor plays a central part. Within the general population, this confusion dates back to the Abstract Expressionist era, and indeed one finds almost no mention of animal artists before the 1950s. I can appreciate a joke when I see one, but you really should have saved this communication until April Fool’s Day.
(RG note) Thanks, Peter. The inbox this morning brought a litter of stimulation. Several artists noted that when the making of art got “too easy,” even animals were able to do it.
Insult to Jackson Pollock style
by Steve Reinhart, New York, NY, USA
I paint entirely on the ground and drip my paint (no brushes). I am neither an animal nor a Jackson Pollock “copy” or “wannabe.” I think it’s a shame that most people view dripping paint as “child’s play” etc., etc., and don’t truly appreciate this incredible style of painting. I agree Jackson Pollock’s methods were associated with his drinking, etc., and animal painting has received a lot of press through the years, so trying to justify this form of painting as legitimate is “iffy.” There are artists out there (the human kind) that are painting in this style professionally. I only wish our art received as much attention if not validation.
Why cats paint
by Margot Hattingh, South Africa
The purrfect publication on animal art has to be Why Cats Paint by Heather Busch and Burton Silver. The book, according to its blurb, “is a registered international experiment in inter-species morphic resonance and is designed to test the hypothesis of formative causation.” If you haven’t seen it — you absolutely must get hold of a copy. It is the best send-up of ‘artspeak’ that I’ve ever seen. It should be required reading for any art critic or writer.
(RG note) Thanks, Margot. Why Cats Paint has pride of place on our coffee table. One day when Stanley was visiting I noticed him glancing at it. “Why not me?” he asked.
Dogged art makes people think
by Karl Leitzel, Spring Mills, PA, USA
Your “animal art” letter brilliantly walked the line between serious commentary and hilarious spoof. I’m still pondering what to make of it, and that is one of the key responses we as artists should be aiming for — making people think. At the same time, and I think this is what your letter was hinting at; if we drift into a private little creative world that hardly anyone can connect with, are we communicating any more than a trained elephant would? I think of this every time I view a museum show that leans toward modern art. I can appreciate a vast range of well-executed representational art and even some that is almost entirely abstracted, but random splashes of paint or tangled balls of electrical wire (even when hung in a prestigious museum), seldom cause me to think much more than, “huh?”
Flip comments by Dave Genn
by Jerry Snyder, Reading, PA, USA
Regarding “Don’t kid yourself Dad, it’s not the art, it’s the cheese.” (Dave Genn) it’s both, but unlike in human attractions, terms, physiognomy — these are not likely to be in a recognizable combination or relation through convention. It’s always unfortunate to see someone try to run away with “conversation piece” art, even a 3D wall hanging can hurt some “convention-dependent” entities. But animals like Stanley (it’s the cheese not the art) or like Dave Genn (it’s the cheese not the art) bear only so much neurology with which science might paint pictures. Hard to bear — but it’s the cheese, it’s the art AND IT’S WHAT DAVE GENN MIGHT HAVE got out of it BUT DIDN’T. But then Dave Genn didn’t get ANY or ANY “art” apparently this time around — and if even if there would be — there’s certainly as brand of “wording” and “thinking” that would PROSCRIBE it. Not really the whole reason WHY most pictures are not 3D (also “conversation pieces” in your sneering and derisive ways?) hanging on a wall or hanging on wall — but believe you me, if you think Stanley is built for EASEL and WALL HANGING “art,” viewing or making or experiencing it — IT’S NOT THE CHEESE and it IS THE ART, only just because you’ve immersed yourself in the production and sale and the subject of CONVENTIONAL ART/ART ARTIFACTS — THAT DOESN’T DIMINISH cheese, art, framed/hanging museum art OR me OR Stanley. Science is science — some add the word HARD, i.e. HARD science. Let’s be a little Florence Nightengale about it and serve cheese, when we can, as cheese, when we like (meaning the cows, the farmers & their suppliers, the government and Stanley, and you and me — but includes the UNlikely possibility that all you’s & all me’s would actually “like it,” considering the flip comments of David Genn and the you’s and me’s). A brush, in other words, may prove still to be “a brush” to a real artist, but it might not be “a brush” to me and Stanley (especially if it can be – but not especially if you “just say” to us that it can’t be).
(RG note) Thanks, Jerry. Several artists wrote poetic, inexplicable letters that we all had trouble understanding. This was one of the most inexplicably poetic but we all agreed it was a valuable contribution and gave a thoughtful overview of the issues involved.
Tante Paula (left), Mary Beth Guinan(right)
oil and Beeswax paintings, part of the ‘Women of Courage Mosaic’
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Rae Sutcliffe of Sechelt, BC, Canada who wrote, “Oh woe! I can see that I must give up trying to paint. Not only do I not have a super striped tee and a beret, but I’m never going to be as cute. Stanley, a word of advice — Sell the mat you’re standing on; it has much better composition!”
And also Brian Reifer of Costa del Sol, Spain who wrote, “I’m just experimenting with abstract and thoroughly enjoying the ‘new’ way. I could use some help and advice. Has Stanley an atelier?”
And also Dudley Parker of Eastleigh, Hants, England who wrote, “It is no more the animal’s creation than a cloud is an act of God. Pure chance, sometimes better than others and people like it, like it enough to pay for it. Then some people pay good money for work by Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin. ‘A fool and his money are soon parted.’ ”
And also Elizabeth Nees of Long Beach, CA, USA who wrote, “When that ant sculpture was shown at the Whitney Biennial some of the ants escaped and infested (and altered) a nearby sculpture that was made of bread. Starving artists.”
And also Janine Hart Manemann who wrote, “I balk at qualifying animal work as art. I believe an artist has to intend to create something. That is strictly a human quality. Animals can walk, sit or sniff around a piece of paper but without artistic intentions what they leave behind is hardly artful!”
And also Gerti Hilfert of Langenfeld, Germany who wrote, “While his outfit looks really great, his painting technique is amazing. I guess if my Airedale Ginger tried to paint with a tail-brush it would cause body painting because her tail is curved. Although there’s no hope for such great results as Stanley’s, Ginger agreed to get dressed up for him.”
And also Jan Ross of Kennesaw, GA, USA who wrote, “Knowing elephants and ants are making more money with their ‘art’ than I am really killed my enthusiasm for painting today! My cat, ‘Sweetie,’ needs to get to work. Someone has to pay the bills around here.”
And also Suzanne Hesh who wrote, “This is another example of insulting the dignity of these creatures, ridiculing them and generally using them to further the monetary gain of humans. Duct tape on a dog’s tail? That’s cruel and probably painful for the animal. This ‘animal art’ is ignorant, unenlightened foolishness.”
And also Trish Meyer of Sherman Oaks, CA, USA who wrote, “Steve Kutcher has spoken locally on the art he creates with ‘living brushes.’ ”
(RG note) Thanks, Trish. Steve Kutcher works with insects. You can see the work at http://bugartbysteven.com/.