On the first day of class, whether she’s teaching art in Brooklyn or Thailand, Katya Arnold always starts with the simple act of applying brush to paper. Of course, her 4th and 5th graders at St. Ann’s School in New York hold their brushes differently than the Thai elephants do, but Arnold, a 40-year teaching veteran, says there are more similarities than one might think.
“When I teach young children and elephants, the techniques are basically the same—it’s a lot about the movement when they paint,” she says. “They also have a short attention span, young children and elephants. I let [the children] jump for a minute or two when I see they’re losing their attention. Same with elephants.”
The artist and educator learned about the creatures up close thanks to her husband, who works for an elephant-conservation nonprofit. Until 1989, when logging was banned in Thailand, the pachyderms were used widely to carry heavy timber out of that country’s forests. But with their utility suddenly gone, the fate of the animals—many of which bore work injuries that made their survival in the wild dubious—seemed dark.
Arnold saw teaching the elephants to paint as a way to save them, and now their work is sold for anywhere from $200 to $1,200 through what’s now known as The Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project. And, as it turns out, Arnold’s work abroad has also helped inspire her human charges.
“She’s probably the best art teacher I’ve ever had; she teaches us things I’ve never learned before,” exclaims 4th grader Benjamin Hicks. “I love art, and I think I want to become an artist.”
Some students, however, sound a little worried about the competition.
“For something that is big and bold as an elephant to paint such a delicate thing, [it’s] really beautiful,” muses 5th grader Bairn Rozos-Sweeney, who went so far as to buy one of the elephant-produced paintings. “It’s even better than I think some of us in the class could do.”