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At Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, Artistic Elephants and Chimps Are Living the Easel Life

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During his lifetime Vincent van Gogh never made much money from his art. Neither does Suti. But then Suti, a 10-year-old African elephant, is happy to work for peanuts. She is one of the brightest—and biggest—talents in a veritable Renaissance of animal art taking place at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Suti and C.C., a 40-year-old Asiatic elephant, represent what could be called the Tuskan school of painting. Their main rivals are the six members of the more established Primate school, epitomized by June, a 24-year-old chimpanzee, who has had the most commercial success so far. June had a one-chimp show at a Chicago gallery in 1971, and four paintings were snapped up by avid collectors. Proceeds—about $450—went toward the upkeep of the zoo’s Great Ape House.

Great ape keeper Pat Sass, who discovered the painting talents of a chimp named Louie in 1963, naturally thinks the chimps are better artists than the elephants. “The chimps have been working at it much longer,” she says. June, Sass’s current star, is as much a performer as she is an artist. She kisses the canvas, jumps up and down and sometimes relieves herself on her work. “It gives the chimps something different to do,” says Sass. “They love the attention.”

Although she’s not as successful as June, Suti the elephant does make a big Impressionist. She paints from a kneeling position, dipping her trunk into pans of finger paint and then swirling the colors onto a canvas on the ground. Afterward she holds up the finished painting for the crowd. “She’s a smearer,” says Pat Swieca, a keeper in the elephant house. “C.C. is more meticulous. She’s also more Renaissance. Suti has a sort of 1970s, 1980s approach.” Swieca has a pair of pachyderm Picassos on her wall at home. “One looks like a cockatoo,” she says. “The other I call Explosion in a Spaghetti Factory.”