Mokupapapa to exhibit work of Waimea painter, pachyderm partner

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald "The Rama Exhibition: A Journey of Art and Soul for the Earth," an international traveling exhibit on endangered species, opens Wednesday at NOAA’s Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo.
  • Waimea artist Calley O’Neill adds details to an abstract work created by Rama, an Asian elephant. (Courtesy photo)

Proving that even the creators of art exhibitions are only paid peanuts, the Mokupapapa Discovery Center will display paintings by an Asian elephant this week.

“The Rama Exhibition: A Journey of Art and Soul for the Earth” will open Wednesday and feature the artwork of Rama, an Asian elephant from the Oregon Zoo, and Waimea artist Calley O’Neill.

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Rama found great pleasure in spraying his handlers with water through his trunk, O’Neill said. Rather than attempt to train that behavior out of Rama, his handlers instead decided to see if he would enjoy painting instead.

Rama took to the craft with great enthusiasm. Once a week for years, the pachyderm would demonstrate his painting at the Oregon Zoo, his work varying between spraying paint from his trunk onto a canvas to manipulating. These paintings were displayed at art galleries and sold by the zoo at charity auctions.

Rama began his “collaboration” with O’Neill in 2007.

“For a long time, I’d wanted to collaborate with an abstract artist for a traveling exhibition on endangered peoples,” O’Neill said.

However, initial forays into finding a collaborator fell through because of creative disagreements, until O’Neill visited the Oregon Zoo in 2006. Serendipitously stumbling upon one of Rama’s demonstrations, O’Neill found a new collaborator.

“Now I’m backed up by someone without an ego!” O’Neill said.

The elephant’s unsurprisingly abstract spray and brush paintings — O’Neill called Rama the “best abstract painter in the world” — served as a canvas over which O’Neill would superimpose details, depicting different endangered species over Rama’s colorful backdrops, based on photos by renowned wildlife photographers.

For one month each year for five years, O’Neill and Rama painted together, completing 23 paintings, with 36 paintings ultimately planned — she is currently working on one painting of sharks and another of frogs.

“We hang them in a way so that they kind of move, so you get this sense of being surrounded by wild animals,” said Andy Collins, education coordinator for the Mokupapapa Discovery Center.

“All content and power has been taken out of art,” O’Neill lamented.

“Art has very little meaning for anyone, anywhere anymore. But all throughout history, art has had power and meaning.”

O’Neill said her work with Rama is intended to move viewers into recognizing the importance of protecting wildlife, and that “everything you do matters right now,” so long as viewers take the time to truly consider each work.

“It’s essential to all life on Earth that we wake up to what’s most important,” O’Neill said. “And the work that’s really important is taking care of the Earth so it can take care of our children.”

The endangered species depicted in the exhibition include the Amur tiger, the orangutan, the Malayan sun bear, the chimpanzee and, of course, an Asian elephant — in particular, Rama’s sister, Rose.

Only between 40,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants are thought to survive in the wild, with between 15,000 and 20,000 elephants in captivity.

Sadly, Rama is not among their number. The elephant was euthanized in 2015 after a 25-year-old leg injury began causing him too much pain.

Although Rama had received treatment for the injury for years, those treatments were no longer effective as his conditions worsened, so the Oregon Zoo decided to humanely put down the animal. He was 31.

“I cried a river for Rama,” O’Neill said. “I couldn’t even move, I was so tired from crying all the time.”

Still, Rama lives on in his paintings, which will be displayed in Hilo through Earth Day, April 22, and probably through the end of April, Collins said.

“They really draw you in,” Collins said. “They have a very unique visual presentation. They let you connect in a very different way with endangered species.”

Where the exhibition will go after April is currently unknown, Collins said, although O’Neill hopes the exhibition can find a semi-permanent home in Hilo.

“Hawaii is famous in conservation circles for being the endangered species capital of the world,” O’Neill said. “I would love for every visitor to the island to do something when they visit — to plant a tree, or weed out some invasive plants on the mountain. The little things count, too.”

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The opening of the exhibit will take place from 4-7 p.m. Wednesday at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo. Attendance is free.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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