“To encourage spots and blobs he tugs the ear forward, towards the canvas. So, very sadly, the design the elephant is making is not hers but his. There is no elephantine invention, no creativity, just slavish copying.” - Desmond Morris, Daily Mail, February 21, 2009
Aree watched her mahout approach: his long metal hook resting on his shoulder, his gnarled, leathery face pinched in a scowl. He grabbed Aree’s ear and led her past a young elephant tied up between four wooden posts. Dried blood covered the elephant’s face, and his trunk hung low. As the mahout passed, he swung his hook in a lazy, half-hearted motion striking the elephant on his back. Aree had been “broken” like this too long ago. She turned her head away so as not to lose resolve for her planned insubordination.
The mahout led Aree through the bamboo forest which shrouded her grim accommodation from tourists. Next, they walked down the tunnel, one side clear plastic glass, the other side a cinder block wall wheatpasted with prints from Van Gogh, Munch, Picasso, Klimt, Hopper, Homer, and others. Aree once had a young mahout who’d talked about those paintings as he led her down this chute, a daily, 100-yard art education.
The tunnel opened up into a larger paddock. Aree approached the easel set up there and faced the steel-cable fence and the tourists beyond it. The mahout grunted and handed her a paintbrush loaded with black. She hated the necessity of this, that despite her aspiration and talent, she wasn’t physically able to pick up a paintbrush without human help.
Aree heard the familiar low-level chuckle from the audience. The mahout tugged her ear. A small nail hidden in his palm dug into her skin and guided her to the starting point on the canvas.
She painted the same thing every day: two elephants trekking through a field of flowers. She used simple, representational outlines for the elephants, short brush strokes for grass, and specs of color for flowers. The mahout’s hook hovered above. His nail tip pinched the back of her ear and guided the arc of her lines.
Aree recognized the paintings on the cement tunnel wall as comedy through juxtaposition. How many human painters were there? She assumed many. Only a population rich with artists would laugh at the folly of an elephant trying her hand at this lofty human endeavor. Extrapolating from the small sample of human work she’d seen, she imagined a near infinite number of artistic styles and longed to create something of her own.
Aree had never seen a field of flowers like the one she painted daily. Her compound looked raw and dusty. The captive elephants imprisoned with her wore their plight in the form of complex, wrinkled, scarred, and fragmented faces. Deep, severe lines. Picasso’s cubism mixed with the dark outlines of Van Gogh’s trees.
The mahout tugged down on Aree’s ear, a signal for her to complete the downward slope of her subject’s trunk. Instead, she closed her line to make a small rectangle. The mahout mumbled, then smacked her back with his hook. He tore the paper off the easel and hung a fresh sheet. He grunted, reloaded the brushed, handed it to her, and pulled her ear hard, his nail digging into her skin. Again, Aree began the slope of the trunk, then made the sharp right angle of a rectangle. The mahout struck her three times.
She wanted to paint a piece that showed the depth of her experience. She’d already composed it in her head and needed materials and space to realize her concept.
The mahout reached to tear off the paper again, and Aree swung her trunk and pushed him out of the way. He stood back wide-eyed looking at her from shoulder to toe as if noticing her enormous size for the first time. She added several more lines, the amalgamation of rectangles began to form an elephant face refracted and reimagined. The mahout yelled and raised his hook high. Aree kept painting and stomped her foot twice hard and heavy. The ground shook. The mahout quieted. The crowd gasped. She reloaded her brush and made dark, heavy lines.
She felt the mahout approaching from the side. She turned to face him, and while instinct told her to trumpet a great sound of warning, she didn’t want to drop her brush. Instead, she grunted and made a sudden move with her head as if she were about to charge. The mahout froze giving Aree more time with her canvas.
She worked furiously knowing others would soon rush in, beat her, sedate her, or dole out whatever punishment deemed appropriate for an elephant breaking from realism and delving into abstraction. She didn’t have time for the self-critic. Instead, she marveled at the waterfall of shapes spilling down her paper, hard edges that together made the gentle slop of an elephant’s trunk. Her subject’s eyes looked wise and hard between her clean, angular lines. She heard murmurs from the visitors beyond the fence but stayed focused on her work.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw seven men approaching. They carried rope, hooks, a dart gun, and an electric prod. If she could finish painting the head and face of her portrait, that might be enough. A few simple lines suggested the outline of the body already.
The men surrounded her. She stepped back and looked at her canvas. In it, she saw all her influences — the posters she passed daily, her life experiences — and she was satisfied. Next, she felt a jolt of electricity shoot through her.
She’d once heard a trainer say an elephant has 40,000 muscles in its trunk, and she thought how this elaborate interwoven systems of nerves and small muscles had to be more complex and nuanced than human fingers. In those 40,000 muscles Aree imagined potential for new techniques, new brushstrokes. Now, with the pulse of the electric prod, her trunk muscles stiffened, and she dropped her brush. A sharp pain pierced her neck and she turned to see a man lowering a dart gun. A moment later, the tranquilizer took effect. Her legs gave out. She sank to her knees, and her vision blurred.
A man threw a canvas bag over her face. With much effort, Aree lifted her head and pushed the bag from her eyes with her trunk. She took one last look at her work. Her mahout took the paper off the easel and looked at it quizzically. Then, he tore it in two, the sound an audible end to Aree’s experiment in abstraction. She gave in to the tranquilizer and let her head fall back to the ground. She wondered if there were any artists behind the steel cable fence with enough empathy to understand what she was feeling.
by Theodore Carter
Theodore Carter is the author of The Life Story of a Chilean Sea Blob and Other Matters of Importance (Queens Ferry Press, 2012). His fiction has appeared in several magazines and anthologies including The North American Review, Pank, Necessary Fiction, and A capella Zoo. Carter’s street art projects, which began as book promotion stunts, have garnered attention from several local news outlets including NBC4 Washington, Fox5 DC, and the Washington City Paper. www.theodorecarter.com
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