Surapa, Painting Elephant
Buffalo, New York
At the Buffalo Zoo, Surapa the Elephant paints Friday through Monday at 11:30 am in a special area -- a human zoo of shrieking, squealing kids -- next to the elephant enclosure.
Surapa, a 4 1/2 ton Asian Elephant, arrived at the Buffalo Zoo from India in 1987, and took up painting in 1997. The zookeepers tried to teach their older two elephants to paint, but Jody wasn't interested, and Bookie just wanted to eat the training snacks.
Surapa's keepers first had to teach her to hold the brush, then to smear the canvas with it, then to get used to the smell of the paint (it is, after all, the elephant's nose).
An easel with a blank canvas is set out in an flat area in front of a row of bleachers. Surapa lumbers out from a gate, and after some brief antics carrying logs and curtseying, gets down to business. One trainer firmly braces the back of the easel, providing Surapa a steady target.
"Painting" may be too generous a word; "whacking" is more apt. One of the trainers dips the brush in a color and Surapa whacks the canvas with it. Three colors, three whacks per canvas -- or T-shirt -- three canvases per show. The zoo sells the canvases and T-shirts at the gift shop for $25 apiece. Each painting comes with a "Certificate of Authenticity."
Elephant painting isn't all that rare, but good elephant-produced art is. Most pachyderms, left to their own muse, choose to paint exclusively in yellows. So the trainers give a hand by picking bright primary colors that small children enjoy.
Surapa's creativity tends toward the abstract, but dismissing them as gargantuan random finger paints is like indicting all Modern Art. Some have compared Surapa's body of work to serious collections in downtown galleries.... (okay, we don't know who made that comparison, but someone told us, so it must be true).
After the show was over and the kids left, we asked if it would be possible to commission a special work by Surapa, employing a more serious palette. The zoo agreed, and the big artist set to work on another masterpiece.
The painting, titled "Elephant Guernica," took her all of two minutes to complete. Yet it is beautiful and striking, as elephant paintings go.
The sweeping, dark strokes suggest a towering figure of an elephant. Yet also a weary animal, who has seen too much, her trunk turned down in a traditional mourning pose.
Is it a self-portrait? Is it Surapa herself, a gentle artistic soul powerful enough to trample bleachers full of squalling toddlers and camera-brandishing moms?
Only she knows for sure.
In the meantime, we have to look into a rumored painting sea lion at Marineland in Niagara Falls.
Video: Surapa show, Quicktime 4mb .mov