By New Times Staff
By Claire Lawton
By Robrt L. Pela
By Robrt L. Pela
By Robrt L. Pela
By Robrt L. Pela
By Benjamin Leatherman
By By Kathleen Vanesian
Newly published is a biography by Dick George titled Ruby: The Painting Pachyderm of the Phoenix Zoo. The book is stuffed with great photos of Ruby, her compelling abstracts and the fascinating story of her development as an artist.
I made an appointment with Dick George, author, anthropologist and publications manager for the Phoenix Zoo. We whirred over to Ruby's area in a golf cart.
According to George, Ruby's painting is "a modification of a natural behavior." She started early. As a calf, Ruby liked to stand alone and make patterns on the ground with her trunk. Nobody had any idea what it meant, although similar marking behavior had been noticed in other elephants both captive and wild.
Eventually, through the increasing interest of her keepers, Ruby was introduced to tools. From a rake held in her 400-pound trunk, she eventually graduated to brushes and to an apparent enthusiasm for painting.
What struck me is that Ruby enjoys painting. Unlike the behaviors that animals are trained to perform in hopes of receiving a reward--the seal clapping for a fish, the bear wearing a tutu and dancing for food--painting, for Ruby, is her reward. She no longer paints for the public, but continues to work at her art once a week or so.
"It's at a point where we don't say the word `paint' around Ruby," says George. "We spell it out. When the keepers used to go into the yard with the elephants and have them do a variety of exercises, when Ruby did particularly well, they would ask her if she wanted to do a painting. And all you had to do was say the word `paint' and she would make a real high-pitched squeak and do a little dance."
Amazingly, Ruby is choosy about her color schemes. "One day when Ruby had just started painting," George explains, "her keeper, Tawny Carlson, tried handing Ruby a brush with one color on it. Ruby kept throwing the brush down until Tawny gave her the color she wanted. Then she went on making her marks."
Ruby has sometimes chosen to paint in the colors of objects that drew her attention while she was executing the artwork. Dick George said that one day, out of nowhere, Ruby began to "sign" her paintings with a flourishing scrawl in the lower right-hand corner.
"So, do you think cats could paint?" I inquired, thinking that teaching zoo-type cats to paint could be a dicey, if not lethal, proposition. "I think most people don't take the concept very seriously," said George.
"Unfortunately, teaching an animal these types of behavior can be just for money or a public relations gimmick. I think that if we begin to think of animals differently and not simply as inferior caricatures of ourselves, we would find that animals will do things we cannot even imagine."
Leaving the zoo, I stopped in to see ASU associate professor of art education Dr. Bernard Young, who was one of the experts called in to take a look at Ruby's fledgling artwork and help devise experiments to evaluate her painting behavior.
"But the bottom line is--Ruby really wants to paint, right?" I asked Dr. Young.
"Yes. Ruby really seems to enjoy making the marks. The fascinating thing is that she has such control of the brush with her trunk. Her lines are very clear and strong. What she does is very deliberate."
That was all I needed to hear.
Even though Why Cats Paint had emerged as a hoax, the fact that Ruby paints remained. The desire to unearth an artistic instinct in one or all of my cats became an id‚e fixe.
After all, my grandmother's piebald tom, Charles Atlas, was known to ritually drape a specific branch of the backyard crape myrtle with the tails of his unfortunate squirrel prey. And my aging and mean-spirited tabby, Fatty, surprised and thoroughly disgusted me this past April with a sub-sofa installation featuring the severed heads of five birds. They were all upright and facing the same direction. Thoroughly revolting, yes. But the display necessitated a modicum of design sense and was not that different from some macabre performance art I've witnessed.
So I set out on my rounds. First, the hardware store for a drop cloth, then Binders for some primary-colored watercolors--non-toxic, to avoid fatalities--and some catnip to lure my unsuspecting cats into the mock "studio" I would create in the living room.
The instant I began moving furniture, all of them--Mentos, Bibo, Fatty, Sugarbean, Mix and Debi Bitz--divined my intentions and scattered.
The "catelier" suitably equipped and the paints readied, I left the crew alone to become acclimated. Returning with a stiff double espresso, I noticed everyone wandering around, sniffing, being cats, certainly intrigued.
Debi Bitz, the portly Siamese with an unmistakable touch of hamster blood, lay down below the carefully arranged canvases taped to the wall. Mentos, a tailless gray with black lips who I have always considered the least mentally endowed of my brood, actually began to cast peripheral glances at the plates of paint.
Five minutes, ten minutes ticked by. Calendar pages were whipped by invisible gusts through my mind. I started feeling somewhat embarrassed.
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