Looking closer, you see the paint is confined to the elephant patched to the front of a shoulder bag-a self-portrait of the artist, if you will. The bag, a Palo Verde green, dangles beside others in the collection. The canvas bags are decorated with elephant patches. Others, made of silk, are striped with yellow and white and black and green. The colors serve no functional purpose but to express the elephant’s artistic sensibilities. After all, it is an elephant that paints the fabric.
The green bag, draped on display in Tucson Artistic Gifts on Fourth Avenue, hangs beneath a sketch of an Asian elephant’s head, a tribute to the artist from Mae Taeng Elephant Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The satchels arrived in Tucson a few months ago, said Bob Hyde, who owns Tucson Artistic Gifts with his wife, Sherry. The arrival of the bags has created a considerable buzz. Adjustable straps make the bags flexible, easily slung across your shoulder or hiked up under your arm. The pouch is just big enough to hold your clunky novel and wallet.
The colorful display lures you in, toying with the aesthetic before pouncing on your heartstrings.
“Elephants Helping Elephants Clinic,” the tag reads. “By purchasing the elephant artwork, you are directly contributing to the welfare of the Asian elephant in Thailand.”
The elephant patch on the bag, with its black ears and tail, painted body, and button eye stares up at you, imploring you to imagine its artistic relatives overseas.
“People see them and like the design,” Hyde said. “When they find out there’s a story, they like them even more. They feel like they’re doing good.”
The elephants at Mae Taeng Elephant Park paint the fabric themselves. Several years ago, Sally Ward, a longtime park volunteer and former travel guide from Britain, suggested using elephant artwork to raise money. In 2009, the park officially began fundraising for the area’s first elephant clinic, according to the Mae Taeng Elephant Park website.
“Elephants have been painting on paper for many years, so when the idea came for raising money for an elephant clinic, I suggested we try painting on T-shirts,” Ward said in an email.
That idea spiraled, fueling auctions and fashion shows in some of Chiang Mai’s posh hotels.
With all of the proceeds buoying the Mae Taeng elephant clinic, Ward and other park stakeholders pulled in the fashion elite. The elephants now paint fabric for designer handbags and shoes.
“First, I choose the color of the silk and the paints and work together with the mahouts [elephant trainers], while the elephant does the painting,” said Miguel La Salle, a Thai handbag designer, in an email. “I do several yards of silk at a time and then tailor my bags according to the designs which emerge.”
At a trade fair in Bangkok last year, Ward sold the shoulder bags and other Mae Taeng products to international companies and agents. That money continues to support the elephant clinic.
Now, you can wander down Fourth Avenue and find a product that funds medical care for elephants in Chiang Mai. These bags do more than hang as baubles for decoration on hip or hook.
When the clinic became a reality in March 2011, it began offering free care to any elephant in the area. With the only other medical care at the elephant hospital in Lampang about three hours away, mahouts often put off caring for the injuries and sickness of their elephants, according to the park website.
About 500 elephants live around Chiang Mai in elephant camps. Some camps, like the Mae Taeng Elephant Park, care for over 60 elephants, Ward said.
At the Mae Taeng Park, only five of these elephants paint. Suda and Orachai, as the first to discover the artist within, have inspired their peers to greatness.
“Our two youngest painters are only three, and both used to watch Suda,” Ward said. “I gave them a piece of fabric and a brush, and with no help at all, they painted this fabric. Both pieces are now dresses and worn at charity fundraisers and shows.”
Even as Asian elephants gain this artistic praise, it is only a compromise for their declining numbers and disappearing habitat.
“Asian elephants are different than other endangered animals,” said David Ferris, the executive director of the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project (AEACP). “A large portion of the remaining animals is in captivity, but there is no habitat to release them into.”
Between 3,000 and 4,000 elephants still live in Thailand, but more than half are domesticated, according to Ferris and statistics from the AEACP site.
“The reality is, there is just no untouched wild,” Ferris said. “There’s no room left for elephants, so we have to find ways to coexist.”
Unlike their relatives in Africa, Asian elephants have interacted with humans for centuries. Today, many elephants make their homes in tourist camps, offering visitors a day-in-the-life experience.
“The elephant has long been domesticated [Togel Singapura],” La Salle said. “They have been used in logging, warfare, and as carriers of people and materials.”
At Mae Taeng Elephant Park, the majority of the elephants cruising the grounds spent years in the logging industry. For these guys, painting can come as an enriching alternative.
“They are very much like people,” Ferris said. “Some are good artists. Some are not. We do not force all the elephants to paint, but some get really excited when the paint comes out.”
At the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, the new, 7-acre elephant expansion, Expedition Tanzania, will open in March. The zoo’s current elephants, Shaba and Connie, will move to the San Diego Zoo to make room for a small herd of African elephants.
“It is important to keep elephants physically and mentally occupied,” said Jim Schnormeier, the general curator at the Reid Park Zoo. “You have to train them so you can work with them, and elephants are pretty smart. Here, [our African elephant] Shaba paints.”
In the 1980s, Ruby, an Asian elephant at the Phoenix Zoo, became one of the first artsy pachyderms to make the news. Her paintings brought in approximately $100,000 to zoo conservation in one year, according Heather Wright, the zoo’s current elephant manager, and AEACP.
With the bags at Tucson Artistic Gifts selling for $35, you don’t need an imagination like Ruby’s to see how fast an elephant’s artwork can haul in the big bucks.
“People are amazed that an animal is capable of this,” Ferris said. “The fact that we know so little about them and then find they are capable of painting raises an issue. We need to learn as much as we can before they aren’t here anymore.”
At Mae Taeng Elephant Park, selling painted clothing and accessories subsidizes the cost of the clinic and medications. When Tucson Artistic Gifts sells out of shoulder bags, Hyde plans on restocking.
They look snazzy, for sure, but Hyde says it is the story of the artists that makes the purchase worthwhile.
“In Thailand, the elephants may wander through villages and do a lot of damage, so they get chased off with knives,” Hyde said. “Here, you just don’t see them all that often. They are majestic creatures, and people somehow find ways to connect with them.”
These satchels, painted by trunks and not fingers, sketch out a way to make that connection with the Picassos of the elephant world.