Part 2 of my assignment for my Animals studies class:
4. Animal Object
Due date: Mar 3
Format: pdf or other form (paper, film, web site) AND character model sheet (pdf)
This assignment is a combination of research, character development and implmentation of a documentary form.
You are going to make a piece about an animal as an object, depicted in the 3rd person.
The assignment is a combination of research and storytelling, with the goal of making a portrait.
a. Research a real animal
b. Do character studies (a character model sheet) and write backstory
c. create a storyboard or a short piece about the character
Ruby the Elephant (1973-1998)
Ruby was an Asian elephant who lived at the Phoenix Zoo. When her trainers observed her making marks in the dirt with sticks (“drawing,” if you will), they decided to give her paint and brushes and teach her how to paint. And paint she did. Her canvas were shown around the world. She was called “the biggest figure in Southwest art” by an Arizona art critic. Ruby was probably the biggest name to come out of my hometown–Phoenix, a place with little culture and virtually no history–since Stevie Nicks. The money from Ruby’s artwork helped to pay for elephant conservation and breeding work. Her trainers also used Ruby’s painting as a way of doing research to find out whether or not elephants can see in color.
I remember Ruby from my visits to the Phoenix Zoo as a kid. I also remember that my parents had a print of a Ruby painting on the wall in their office. I loved going to the zoo because it was an exotic world apart from the homogeneous suburban sameness of Phoenix. The zoo is located in a sparsely-populated part of town with weird rocky outcroppings that looked otherworldly. Although in retropect, that “otherworldliness” was actually the more-or-less natural environment of the Arizona desert. What was “unnatural” was intensively-irrigated green lawns carpeting the suburban landscape, more appropriate for Florida than a desert.
Not much is known about Ruby’s origins. She was born in a logging camp in Thailand in 1973. Her mother was probably a trained elephant that worked for people, her father was probably a wild elephant who lived in the jungle. She was delivered in a crate to the Phoenix Zoo in 1974. The only documentation of her origins was a paper receipt for her delivery.
It wasn’t that easy finding information about Ruby. She lived and died before the Age of the Internets was in full swing. I found a few pictures and scans of Ruby’s canvases. I did get a hold of a children’s book about Ruby by Dick George, which had the most comprehensive story of her life. I also found a few old news articles and some other stuff about other painting elephants. Even my own memory is sketchy after all this time. Yet somehow this process of research has triggered something in me, some sort of (latent) emotional affinity towards her? Or just an invented nostalgia for my childhood in a hometown that becomes more and more unrecognizable due to rampant sprawl and development every time I go back to visit.
Ruby never seemed to fit in her surroundings. (I didn’t really fit in in Arizona either, so maybe that’s why I feel a connection with her) She grew up in the company of humans. She had a few elephant friends that came and went, but she never had the chance to fully bond with any of them. Maybe painting was a way for her to express herself. Maybe it made her more human? Or less elephant? What was Ruby trying to express? Was she just documenting her surroundings? Or was she trying to express a deep sadness that came from captivity and loneliness. Was Ruby another tortured artist who died too young? Despite the bold brushstrokes and vibrant colors of Ruby’s paintings, I can’t help but to see the melancholy in Ruby’s paintings. The desire to communicate, yet a certain futility. An inability to fully communicate and to be understood.
Some called Ruby “an ambassador for her species.” But elephants don’t paint in the wild. I doubt they aspire to be stars in the art world. If anything, painting made Ruby more un-elephant-like.
In 1997, Ruby was sent to Tulsa to mate with a male elephant named Sneezy. She came back to Phoenix with a big bun in the oven. But there were complications towards the end of her pregnancy. The zoo vets discovered that her fetal calf had died inside her womb. They tried to remove the fetus via C-section, but they had to cut through 4-5 feet of skin and tissue to reach her uterus, which was the size of a small Volkswagen. They discovered that the fetal calf weighed 320 pounds, twice the size of a normal elephant calf. Ruby’s uterus had ripped open, and an infection had spread throughout her abdominal cavity. The vets had no choice but to euthanize her immediately. But is that what really killed her? Or was it the captivity, the celebrity and the breeding that led to her early death?
At the time of her death, Ruby weighed 9,000 pounds. One newspaper described the outpouring of grief in Arizona as “if Princess Diana had died again.” (The Princess of Wales had passed away the year before) Ruby was buried on the grounds of the Phoenix Zoo. Over 43,000 attended a free-admission day at the Zoo in Ruby’s memory.
Here are some sketches I drew of Ruby:
See also: Ruby the Elephant Research Links