THE WONDER OF ELEPHANTS
There is something majestic about an elephant.
When you look at an elephant, do you not feel some sense of awe? Of amazement? How can something grow that large? On one hand their sheer size almost seems to defy reason, yet in their being quite real they remind us of so much possibility.
These are attributes symbolized by the elephant in various cultures throughout the ages. Yet they also represent so much more – the worst and the best of us.
When I was a boy, I focused on the best.
Back then, a special part of my week was Saturday afternoon which I spent watching old movies with my dad. Many of the movies were black and white. Our favorites were action flicks. You know, the ones where bridges got blown up, prison camps were escaped, towns were terrorized by lawless men until a mysterious stranger rode in and saved the day.
There were also adventure stories, like Tarzan. I can still remember Tarzan’s call (which was part roar, part shriek) and how he often used it to hitch a ride on an elephant in order to go save someone who was in over his or her head.
What appealed to me most about those Tarzan stories were the concepts of good and evil, of greed and kindness. And I loved how Tarzan was connected to the natural world. Those old movies were the first time I’d ever seen wild animals like lions and elephants that weren’t merely cartoons or illustrations.
As a boy who was rather sickly, I was certainly enamored by Tarzan’s physical prowess, but even more by his ability to relate to the animals, to show empathy for them, and to have an almost symbiotic relationship with them. As a boy who couldn’t have pets due to health issues, I didn’t understand the bond the bond that arises in such relationships, the love. And that seemed almost magical to me.
It seemed wonderful!
That’s when I first saw elephants as more than massive and strong. They were smart. And they seemed to care about Tarzan.
There was also a black and white television show I couldn’t wait to watch each week – Daktari which was about a veterinarian and his family living in the wilds of Africa and administering help to injured animals.
I imagine what appealed to me most about the show was the idea of living in a land so different from the small town I lived in, a far away place full of so much danger and wildness, yet one where compassion and kindness were every bit as important as the seemingly tame world in which I lived.
I’ll admit it, I don’t know nearly as much as I should about elephants, but apparently they are one of the most social animals. They are loyal and brave and they demonstrate their connections with one another in a variety of ways, from their propensity to tend to and to remain with the dead (even dead elephants from other herds . . . even, it is said, with dead humans), to the way they “hug” with their trunks.
I’m also drawn to the natural juxtaposition an elephant provides: the massive size and strength, yet, there’s also an element of gentleness, of tenderness, of compassion. And the thick, rough, grayish skin juxtaposed with those sharp, smooth, curving ivory tusks.
I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly why elephants have always been fascinating to me, but I think many of the illustrations and paintings on this page convey some of their best traits, some of that wonder. After all, according to certain sources, ever since the ancient petroglyphs and cave art of the stone age, elephants have been “depicted in various forms of art, including pictures, sculptures, music, film, and even architecture.”
Elephants are symbols of “royalty, connection to ancient wisdom, removal of obstacles and barriers, confidence . . . commitment, gentleness, communicating in relationships, discernment, intelligence, compassion . . .”
The basic premise always seems to be the same, however, and that has to do with the concept of “Syadvada” and to the idea that the ways of looking at things are infinite. That “all judgments are conditional.” They depend upon (and may therefore vary as a result of) certain conditions, circumstances, and the use of certain senses.
Each blind man was wise and each perceived the elephant in vastly different ways. Each was correct, yet each was also wrong.
I think this echoes the juxtaposition alluded to above and is another reason why elephants are so compelling to me. Depending upon what aspect you focus on, you can experience something quite different. I believe the same is true of people. It’s one of the reasons misfits are my primary focus when I write.
What do you think of when you see an elephant (in the wild, at a zoo, in movies, in photographs or illustrations)? What do you feel?
Take a look at the art here, and please be sure to explore the worlds of the wonderful artists who have allowed me to include their work on Other Cool Birds. And keep your eyes to the sky, as several of them have already appeared (or will soon be appearing) elsewhere on the site.
Catia Chen’s “If They Had An Elephant” appeals to me because of the exaggeration of the elephant’s shape and size and because of how utterly perfect it is for the children.
As with all Catia’s art, I love the muted colors, the imaginative nature of the piece itself, and the sense of this being possible in some other magical world.
Another aspect of Catia’s work that I’ll be exploring at more length in an upcoming feature post is how, regardless of just how different the subject of each of her paintings are, the feeling each piece elicits is similar. I find her work calming, and sensitive, and full of wonder.
Vanessa “Nessa” Roeder’s art has a sweetness to it – the way the colors she uses work with the illustrations themselves. There’s a simplicity and a playfulness, whether it’s Robot at School or her various animal illustrations.
I love the colors of her mixed media pieces, but I was especially drawn to her “Elephant” (found in her Wild Animals portfolio) because of all these things – the colors, the shape of the elephant, the sweetness and the playfulness and the freshness of the painting.
“Some of my most precious memories,” says Vanessa, “are sitting at a desk alongside my grandfather as we went step-by-step through How to Draw books.” Although she originally found a niche painting murals, after becoming a mother, she shifted gears and started creating artwork and illustration “geared towards kids, or those who appreciate a touch of whimsy,” which allows her to continue to do the thing she loves from home.
Pamela Zagarenski’s art is elegant, regal, and reminds me of the medieval art often found with books from that period. There’s a renaissance feel to her work, from her gorgeous book covers to her other work.
Whether it’s her award-winning illustrations for books like Sleep Like a Tiger, her Village Series, or paintings like “Tea with a Fox” (which just so happens to include an elephant as well – see if you can find it).
With Pamela’s work, it’s the combination of colors, textures, shapes, and subjects that appeal to me most. And images, like “Elephant 1” here seem to posses a quality that reminds me of the illustrations to Medieval texts like La Morte D’Arthur. They remind me of stories of kings and queens, of Round Tables and and knights and quests and courtly love.
They remind me of tales of legend, of magic, and of nobility and honor.
I’ll be exploring Pamela’s work more closely in a future post, as will I of Vanessa and of each of the artists on this page.
Oanh Le’s illustrations seem to be quite a contrast from Pamela’s. They are more contemporary in context which also seems to affect the emotional response I get when I explore them.
Oahn’s use of color is also different, yet also quite compelling. The two pieces that resonate with me the most are her Bird illustration and “Ellie the Elephant” which is found here.
I love the wonderful array of soft colors and the setting in each of those illustrations.
Ellie’s presence in a massive classroom, the creativity conveyed by making it an art class, the kids painting, Ellie’s being part of the class, a character who isn’t out of place given the lack of reactions or surprise by her fellow classmates, and the fun splotches of paint that Ellie seems to have gotten on herself, all appeal to me.
Even the color Oahn chose for Ellie lends itself to her appeal. This is a classroom in which I’d love to spend time.
The illustrations of Joan Charles speak to the kid in me, to the playful me, to the me who believes in magic of sorts – and her image of the circus is a perfect example of a piece appealing to all these aspects of my personality. But her elephant (found at the every top of this page) resonates with me for other reasons as well – from the colors and the exaggerated shape of the elephant, to the way its legs taper as if it stands on tip toe, to the way it’s head and trunk are up looking at the horizon, as if the elephant is also on a journey, not just as a beast of burden carrying a man, but as a seeker itself.
To me this represents a quest and reminds me of my own dream of being a full-time writer.
To me (as in, this is the symbolism I bring to the piece) the interaction of man and elephant seems to represent the duality of the creative – as someone who undertakes the challenging adventure of pursuing a dream and also as someone who is along for a wonderful ride once that creative journey begins. Joan’s work illustrating middle-grade novels also appeals to me, as a writer of middle-grade fiction and books for children.
Which brings me to the next elephant with which I recently fell in love. A small elephant named elliot.
As a boy, I didn’t grow up with picture books (or any books, really), which seems a bit ironic given my interest in writing books for kids and adolescents. Sad to say, I missed out on a lot of wonderful stories and exceptional illustrations.
I did, however, grow up with Disney movies. As a result, I was a fan of Dumbo decades before I ever heard of Barbar the Elephant, even though he appeared in France a few years before Dumbo learned to fly.
Recently, I came across a new young Elephant who has made his way into the hearts of children: Mike Curato’s Little Elliot. There’s a genuine sweetness and tenderness and innocence to Mike’s illustrations of Little Elliot.
Given the nature of elephants to be quite massive, Elliot seems even more out of place in the Big City due to his diminutive size. It’s not just his being an elephant in the city that touches us, but his being a rather unique elephant: small, innocent, and covered with pink and blue dots no less (colors often associated with young boys and girls).
It’s that brilliant combination of Elliot’s abnormal size, his unlikely location, and those soft spots of color that make him simply adorable. His childlike appearance and moments of tenderness in the story (like when he’s all alone in that large theater, with a tear on his face) that make shim even more appealing.
I only recently came across two wonderful artists whom I am trying to learn more about, Gabrielle Grimard and Alexey Terenin.
A Canadian painter, Gabrielle illustrates for what she calls a “youth audience.” I’m not sure if it is that youthful focus of her paintings or the style which she employs in rendering them that speaks to me more. In addition to the certain fairy-tale quality of her work, I also enjoy her use of color which seems to be her favorite aspect of creating art.
Of course, being a poet, I suppose another reason might be found in Gabrielle’s own words: “If my style remains traditional, it is mostly in that it is full of poetry. I love being able to translate through drawing the world in which I want to live.”
There’s a gothic quality and a darkness to the work of Czech artist, Alexey Terenin, and a starkness, that draws me in and touches me on a much more raw emotional level than most artists.
His colors are more earthy and subdued. And some of his subjects seem to exist between realms, as if they are fading out or into view. Of course, perhaps that’s because he has created “a big city of dreams inhabited with the ghosts of the past and heroes of the present in the most peculiar and unpredictable way.” And it’s that unpredictability, and those ghostly renderings that first struck me when I first encountered his work.
As a writer, I tend to naturally gravitate to creating internal landscapes and description and another aspect of Alexey’s paintings that resonates with me is the way they seem to express the internal through the external. The body language and facial expressions of boy and elephant, the wonderful hints of color, the proximity of the boy and elephant, and the use of the ball resting between their heads – in Alexey’s painting “Understanding” (found here) – all resonate rather profoundly with me.
Self-taught wildlife artist from the UK, Richard Symonds has found himself on “safari in game parks throughout Africa” due to his passion for painting and drawing “wild animals in their natural habitat.” His pencil drawings are particularly stunning to me – the details, the photographic quality of the finished product, like “Love Is” (above) and “Under Cover” (at right) which capture the tender side of elephants.
Richard doesn’t solely focus on animals, working in other areas like pop art, aviation, and figurative art. Spend a little time pursuing his gallery and you’ll see his skills are quite evident.
Richard’s love of wild animals doesn’t just extend to his studying them and representing them through his art, he also uses his immense talent for creating breathtaking images to raise money from his commissions to support wildlife charities. For an idea of the size of some of Richard’s work, check the gallery below (he’s the artist in the red shirt).
Richard’s work also reminds me of remarkable art by painter and conservationist, John Banovich.
The fourth artist whose work I recently discovered is Drew Hill, a concept artist at Epic Games in North Carolina. Drew’s work creates a fun contrast to that of Symonds and Banovich.
Drew’s art focuses on imaginative characters, including some he first conceived as a child. There are elements of science fiction and fantasy, as well as mythology, all of which appeal to me very much.
Here you’ll find one of the interesting characters Drew has developed for a short story of his, Plester the Elephant.
I especially like Plester’s attitude which is conveyed in his aggressive stance and his rough-around-the-edges appearance, which includes a furrowed brow and a bandage on one of Plester’s legs. Drew’s characters have personality, Plester reminds me of the old school Bowery Boys from my youth, dwellers of back alleys, survivors,
Three artists whose work already appears elsewhere on Other Cool Birds, also have wonderful elephants which you will find below. Kevin Sloan‘s paintings are exquisite. They are allegorical, often humorous, and are realistic enough that they could be mistaken for often elaborately staged photographs, like the painting “Migration of Knowledge” found below.
Alexander Skachkov‘s digital art has a rather playful quality and that can be seen in the wonderful flying blue elephant below and in his other work found here.
Peter van Straten‘s paintings reveal fascinating perspectives, elements of “magical realism,” humor, and metaphor, yet I find myself especially drawn to the astounding beauty of his work.
Keep your eyes to the sky. More impressive art will be landing at Other Cool Birds soon.