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Painting for peanuts – and big money

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Ramona dips her brush in a bucket of bright acrylic paint, splashing a cobalt streak onto a white canvas.

A few more strokes and she switches to orange, then green. Ten minutes later, she steps back to reveal a tangle of strokes that will fetch $300 to $900.

That's not bad for a 7-year-old – especially a 7-year-old elephant. Ramona is one in a long line of pachyderm painters turning out abstract pieces that have been auctioned at Christie's for up to $2,000. She lives at the Elephant Safari Park near Taro, Bali. And she paints when inspiration strikes, according to Jumadi, her handler. (The elephant artists also work for peanuts, mud baths, and verbal praise.)

Their work has been exhibited at several museums worldwide. And recently, the handlers of a dozen or so painting pachyderms in Asia formed a website, hosted by, to sell such poetically titled works as "Rhythm of Freedom," "Fresh Morning," and "Deeply From my Heart." Within two months, sales broke $100,000. Half of the profits go to elephant-rescue sanctuaries in Southeast Asia.

True, these seemingly resourceful beasts had some help. But it's plausible, say those who pour the paint and tack up the canvas, that elephant artists enjoy painting and expressing their distinct styles.

"For many years, zookeepers have known that elephants both in captivity and in the wild will pick up sticks and doodle in the dirt," says Mia Fineman, an art historian from New York and coauthor of the book "When Elephants Paint." "Elephants are highly intelligent animals who don't particularly like to stand around all day."

An elephant's trunk, she adds, is sophisticated, containing more than 50,000 muscles, with finger-like appendages at the tip that aid in flicking a dime, stabilizing a log – or turning out a deconstructed Jackson Pollack. To paint, elephants hold brushes with their trunk tips or grasp a piece of bamboo tied to a brush. Some handlers choose colors for their charges, others allow elephants to dip and splash at will. Handlers may first guide the brush to the canvas and steer the process by navigating a tusk. Then, they let elephants paint by themselves.


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