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Elephants painted pictures in the 1930s as part of a circus act. The first serious art by elephants, mostly pencil drawings, was done in the 1940s at a zoo in New York. In 1995, two Russian conceptual artists, Komar and Melamid, began painting with elephants in US zoos. In 1997 they came to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. Our elephants proved very quick learners and soon their work was featured in the daily shows. We were the first camp to paint with elephants in Thailand.

Over thirteen years our daily shows have produced least six paintings a day, totaling over 30,000 pictures. (They are sold on the showground.) To some elephants painting is just a job, but some genuinely love it. At the TECC, elephants that do not want to paint are not forced to paint.

TECC paintings have been featured at many famous art venues including an auction at Christie's and major exhibitions at the Venice Biennale and the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art. TECC paintings were the centerpiece of a CBS 60 Minutes feature and featured in many other TV shows, including Animal Planet, BBC, and National Geographic. Many newspaper and magazine articles have appeared all over the world.

A wonderful book, When Elephants Paint, tells of the early years of elephant painting. The cover features Prathida as a very young and chubby calf.

For the first years the paintings were all abstracts with the elephants doing all of the work apart from choosing colors. Then, a few years ago, a Thai elephant camp started producing 'realistic' pictures, at first simple trees and flowers but ultimately images of elephants. A YouTube video of a calf named Hong painting an exquisite side view of an elephant went viral ( producing millions of hits. Naive viewers mistakenly assumed that Hong and other elephants were creating self portraits or even portraying their anguish at being in captivity.

In fact, all representational paintings, including TECC paintings, are very carefully controlled by a mahout guiding the elephant with his hand on a tusk, mouth, or ear - much like a technician using robotic arms to handle radioactive material. The elephants have no idea at all of what they are drawing, and even the most realistic images do not prove a human-like intelligence.

Still, it is amazing that these huge animals are able to serve as the means of transmission between an image in the mahout's brain and the brush tip on paper. Nevertheless, real art lovers find these painting boring and much prefer the abstracts, the elephants' own work.

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