I was recently selected to be an exhibiting artist in the project AnimalScapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills. This show, a tri-county project of the Calaveras County Arts Council, Tuolumne County Arts Alliance and the Amador County Arts Council, will include over 50 artists and makers. We artists will be creating pieces—paintings, pottery, photos, sculptures, even poetry—that depict animals in the Sierra Foothills, and our works will travel around the three counties in an exhibition to be displayed in 2016.
Thika the elephant stood on the hill looking down at us. PAWS president Ed Stewart said, “if I called her, she’d probably come down. But it’s such a beautiful scene, let’s leave her there.” Indeed. Thika was posing like a movie star between two old oak trees, and the cameras of the AnimalScapes artists clicked and whirred. I took lots of photos, and I sketched fiercely.
PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Society, is home to 8 elephants. The property in Calaveras County, fittingly called Ark 2000, has enough land that the huge animals can roam on mountainsides, splash in pools, and live out their lives as close to wildness as they could possibly come in the Central Sierra Foothills.
I have to admit that I’ve always had a thing for elephants, ever since watching the documentary The African Elephant when I was a kid. It seems to me that they are as conscious as we pretend to be; their complicated familial relationships, their obvious understanding of death and life, and their clear but ponderous intelligence makes me believe they are a sentient species. And we are destroying them.
Some of the elephants at PAWS had been mistreated in their former working lives, or were stolen from their mothers as little babies. Some witnessed elephants killing elephants; possibly some witnessed humans killing their mothers. It’s a wonder that the animals at PAWS have been able to overcome their past traumas to form attachments with the humans that care for them. There are a trio of Africans who throw stones at cars, but other elephants we met were just as curious about us as we were about them.
We got to meet Nicholas personally. He rumbled low as his keeper showed us how they had convinced Nicholas to open his mouth for dental inspection, or show them the bottom of his ottoman-sized feet. I don’t like to use the word trained. Really what they’ve done is learned how to communicate with the animals, and they’ve done it in a way that doesn’t involve pain or punishment. If these animals consent to a dental examination, or present their ottoman-sized feet for a checkup, it’s because they want to. Not because someone is stabbing them with a bullhook.
I couldn’t stop sketching. I could have drawn Nicholas all day long as he snuffled through a pile of bran meal on the floor and purred his elephant growl.
Drawing portraits in person always brings me closer to my subject, and drawing Nicholas was no different. I could feel an intelligence there, a being that knew who he was and who accepted that a small female animal was observing him while he observed her.
AnimalScapes blog posts
Elephants at PAWS