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Saving elephants through art

The masking tape-covered package wasn’t exactly square. It looked more like a 5-foot-tall igloo.

When volunteers took to ripping it open with great gusto, a white head was revealed. Ears, a trunk and legs followed.


This fiberglass baby elephant sculpture is part of a herd that spreads from Singapore to Milan, London, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Its counterparts have even drawn the attention — and imagination — of artists, children and celebrities like Katy Perry, Tommy Hilfiger, Claudia Schiffer, Diane von Furstenberg and Ian McKellen.

Now, 31 Art-A-Fair artists are poised to join that league, thanks to Elephant Parade, the world’s largest outdoor art exhibition in support of the endangered Asian elephant. Marc Spits established this charity in 2006 after a visit to a Thailand hospital, where he encountered an injured mother and baby elephant. The calf, named Mosha, is a landmine survivor who went on to become in 2007 the first elephant in the world to be fitted with a prosthetic leg.


The Art-A-Fair mammal, constructed in a Thailand factory, is situated at the entrance to the festival, in clear view of passersby on the street, and will be on display through Sept. 1. It was recently painted a light sage green.

And the fun’s only just beginning.

Artists will now add distinct color schemes to its legs, feet, trunk, face and rear, and also paint within squares on a blanket sketched on its back.

“When baby elephants are in their natural habitat, their mothers keep them close and warm,” project coordinator Pam Fall said. “When they are orphaned, humans cover their backs with blankets to keep them warm and safe.”


Fall, who is toying with the idea of pen-and-ink henna designs on the front left foot, knows that the elephant will eventually be awash with a potpourri of hues. That’s fine, she said, because the collaboration is “an expression of each artist.”

Starting out with 25 Art-A-Fair exhibitors, she was able to add more to the mix because artists, whom she describes as the “sensitive” sort, are conservation-wise and want to protect Asian elephants from extinction.

Although Art-A-Fair organizers distributed a news release about their new partnership with Elephant Parade, the sight of the sculpture has generated much buzz. Giving in to their curiosity, guests, who have paused to watch artists painting live, have asked questions and also requested photographs.

So the still-unnamed sculpture is acting as a conversation starter about the elephant population in Asia, which has decreased by 90% in the last century, leaving behind only about 35,000 such mammals, according to the Elephant Parade website.


Rather than screening videos of elephant slaughter, Elephant Parade ambassador-at-large Dana Yarger believes a slightly “Disneyfied” sculpture is more approachable and a better tool to raise awareness.

Mary Gulino, vice president of marketing for Art-A-Fair, said the elephant will be sold via silent auction at the end of the summer and proceeds presented to the Asian Elephant Foundation to support its programs, including elephant orphanages, mobile medical clinics and the purchase of a protected habitat in Asia.

As a result, the 5-by-6-foot Art-A-Fair creation will not be part of the organization’s first exhibition in the U.S. in Dana Point from Aug. 23 through Nov. 17. The pack of 80 full- and half-sized elephants will first be showcased at Doheny State Beach until Aug. 25, and then, four days later, will occupy various spots in local parks and beaches, at the harbor and within the Resorts of Dana Point.

“It’s so easy not to think of these beautiful beasts in mysterious lands far away,” Yarger said. "[We hope] saving the elephant will become a symbol and metaphor for all our environmental needs.”