Stroke of genius: Can elephants make art?

In honor of World Elephant Day, 60 Minutes revisits a Bob Simon story from 2002 on some very talented pachyderm painters

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Meet Pratida, an undiscovered artist from Thailand whose abstract paintings have charmed art lovers and fetched big bucks at Christie's. Her brush strokes have a "sort of slowness and sensuality," according to one critic, with "complex tropical tones" reminiscent of Gauguin.

Oh, and just one thing -- she's an elephant.


So how did Pratida become a painter? 60 Minutes' Bob Simon traveled to Thailand in 2002 to find out. As Simon reported in "What's New in the Art World?" (posted in the video player above), Pratida is the protégé of two Russian artists, Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar, who found a way to poke fun at the rarefied art scene while helping their colossal friends.

A century ago, there were 100,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand, Simon reports, employed mostly in logging. But when the Thai government shut down the timber industry to preserve the country's forests, the elephants and their caretakers - known as mahouts - found themselves out of work. Their numbers dwindled. That's where Melamid and Komar came in.

The irreverent artists spent years traveling to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, where they taught Pratida and other elephants to paint. Their goal? Sell the art at fancy exhibitions and auctions, with all proceeds going to the elephants.

"You have to understand the project," Melamid told Simon. "It's not about painting elephants so much, but about using art to help the elephants to survive."

That's all well and good, but is it really art or just a circus trick? That's what Simon wants to know.

"Oh, definitely a trick," Melamid concedes. "But you know, art is a trick."

So what does Melamid think when he sees art connoisseurs taking the work seriously?

"I'm thinking, 'Good for the elephants,'" he said.