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Israeli Elephants On Art World Rampage
TEL AVIV, June 6 (Reuters) - Michaela stepped back from the easel and eyed the paper she had just covered with swathes and splotches of paint. Then she tried to eat her paintbrush.

She wasn't in the mood to paint. Maybe she was just tired of working for peanuts. But then Michaela is an elephant.

Michaela is one of a small herd of elephants from the Jerusalem zoo whose works will be sold at a silent auction this week by Sotheby's auction house in Tel Aviv.

An opening on Monday complete with canapes and cocktails featured 30 pictures by Teddy, Michaela and Susan, young female Asian elephants who first took brush in trunk two months ago.

"I have a feeling this one was hung upside down," said one guest, admiring a forceful earth-toned painting for which bidding started at $200.

With the help of Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar, two New York-based Russian conceptual artists known for artistic satire, Teddy, Michaela and Susan have learned to daub and smear paint on paper in a way that cannot be called derivative.

Melamid and Komar, whose animal art projects began years ago in Jerusalem with a stray dog that patted paint on a bone with his paws, said the Israeli elephants' work, though still raw, was as good as much of what passes for art in the best museums.

"If you know what art is, you can say, but we don't know. I've been an artist for 40 years and I don't know," Melamid said.


At an open exhibition at their zoo pen on Sunday, the three elephants painted under some pressure for a crowd of onlookers who were trying hard to take it seriously.

"It's a talent. Some are born with it and some aren't," said Maya Shklar, 40, a zoo visitor. "Every one of them feels something, is reacting to something. Every animal has feelings."

Zookeepers around the world report that elephants in captivity often doodle on the ground with sticks and stones, and elephants in America have been painting since the early '80s.

"If they didn't enjoy it, they wouldn't do it," said zoo director Shai Doron. "When the muse doesn't appear, they don't paint."

The zoo's youngest elephant doesn't like to paint.

"If you put Avigail in front of a canvas, she'll throw sand at it. She'd rather play soccer," Doron said.

Today, pieces by elephant artists around the world, sometimes called Dumbolists, sell for anywhere from $25 to $15,000. Profits go to Asian elephant conservation and research.

Renee, a mammoth talent at the zoo in Toledo, Ohio, makes $100,000 a year from her paintings.

Like the rest of the pachyderm painters, who are mostly females, the elephants at the Jerusalem zoo are said to belong to the Abstract Expressionism school, in which artists use non-representational means to convey their feelings.

At the zoo on Sunday, Teddy, 16, who Melamid said is the most promising of the "emerging artists," grasped in her trunk the brush dipped in paint by her mahout Yitzhak Yadid.

Then, with a flourish, she applied the paint with deft, short, lyrical strokes. Michaela, 15, approached the canvas diffidently, making long energetic curves of color.

"It's very original and creative," said one woman.

"It's scribbling!" said her five-year-old daughter, uninitiated into the complex values of the art world.

Luckily, Michaela is pretty thick-skinned.

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