Teach an Elephant to Paint

My wife Judy and I were talking this afternoon about De Kooning, the abstract expressionist painter. She sarcastically said, “What a lovely man,” and I realized that she meant Jackson Pollock.  (We watched the Ed Harris biopic several years ago, and Judy came away believing that Jackson was an egocentric, alcoholic philanderer.  She didn’t buy into the myth that he was a tortured genius.) I said, “You’re thinking of Pollock…I’m not sure what kind of guy De Kooning was, but his wife sure had some issues.”  I related the stories I had read claiming that Elaine De Kooning slept with influential critics to get good reviews for her husband’s work.

While we were talking I was reminded of my favorite De Kooning anecdote: newspaper reporters showed De Kooning photographs of paintings made by a chimp.  They looked like abstract expressionist paintings. De Kooning didn’t take offense and said, “I don’t know much about art, but that monkey is one good painter.”

I told the monkey story to Judy and also remarked that brushes, paints and canvases have been given to elephants.  The pachyderms use their trunks to handle the brushes with care and sensitivity and seem to be deeply absorbed in thought as they paint.

The walls in our house are covered with my unsold paintings, and there will never be any chance that we will have to purchase art to decorate a bare spot.  As I glanced away from Judy and looked around the living room the adage about teaching a man to fish popped into my head.  I told Judy, “You give a painting to an elephant, and it has art for a day. You teach an elephant how to paint and it has art for the rest of its life.”

We had a good laugh.


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