JENNIE PAINTS WITH LUCY
For many years I’ve had the privilege of knowing the very talented artist, Jennie Vegt. We met in university, lived together for a bit after graduation and still share a deep love for our cat, Henk. Most recently Jennie has been serving as the artist in residence for Edmonton City Hall. Her work with the city has included everything from engaging the city administration community in collaborative paintings expressing the personalities of each of the city councillors to creating works that reflect the current political issues in Edmonton to being involved in a very moving project that illustrates Edmonton City Council’s commitment to acknowledging Treaty 6 and work to begin to heal the wrongs perpetuated against aboriginal groups in Canada.
While Jennie’s art has recently been occupying a very public space in the city, her body of work is much larger than her time at City Hall. Her blending of the surreal and the everyday give her visually stunning pieces a timeless weight that impacts her audience. Even if I’ve only seen a piece once, I continue to (as Cheryl Strayed would say) “carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.”
In her role as artist in residence at City Hall, Jennie was asked by the Edmonton Valley Zoo to participate in a collaborative painting with Lucy, the elephant.
Lucy, The Elephant
Lucy is a 40 year old Asian elephant who has lived at the Edmonton Valley Zoo since 1977. She came from an animal orphanage in Sri Lanka at that time and was only about 2 years old. She has a team of handlers who are responsible for her care, some of which have been with Lucy for over half her life. Lucy’s day includes playing games, doing physio to help her ward off arthritis, and going for long walks around the zoo with her handlers as well as in the natural area (not open to the public) where she’s free to pull down trees and have more space to roam. She also loves to paint and has been doing so since the early 1990’s.
Being a fixture of the zoo, Lucy is also a very controversial figure. Most of the criticism (the most vocal of which comes from Bob Barker) focuses on the viability of an Asian elephant living in a northern climate. While the long, cold winter in Edmonton obviously has detrimental effects on the lifestyle of an elephant, Lucy’s case is particularly difficult to make a judgement on. When deciding to accept or decline the invitation to paint with Lucy, Jennie asked to visit the zoo, meet Lucy and her handlers and learn more about the issues firsthand. I came along.
The Edmonton Valley Zoo has had more elephants in the past and has moved all of them - except Lucy - to sanctuaries in warmer climates. They’ve chosen not to move Lucy because of her health risks. Lucy has a respiratory condition that both her handlers and vets at the zoo, as well as third party elephant specialists have deemed a life threatening issue during relocation. What it comes down to is that moving an elephant is difficult and stressful and this stress is likely to trigger Lucy’s respiratory condition which would make it very difficult and perhaps impossible for her to breathe during a move.
Both sides of this argument are compelling and both sides are deeply concerned with Lucy’s wellbeing, which makes the situation particularly sticky. In the end, Jennie decided to paint with Lucy, saying “I had my reservations about painting with her given the controversy about moving her to a warmer climates or not. I’ve heard a lot from both sides, and to be honest, I still don’t know how I feel about it. But right now she’s here and she likes to paint, so I’m happy to participate in an activity that keeps her mind active.”
When Jennie came to paint, the handlers warned her that Lucy had been restless that morning and may not be interested for very long. In addition to this, Lucy is picky about who she paints with. The staff at the zoo shared anecdotes with us about times when Lucy has shown no interest in painting with a particular artist or if she does, simply uses her long, sweeping strokes to cover up anything her collaborator adds to the canvas. This can be particularly entertaining for visitors as Lucy often paints for an audience.
Jennie was nervous. We knew there was a large audience waiting to watch her paint with Lucy. As she picked colours for their collaboration we talked about how there’s nothing so demoralizing as being disliked by an animal.
As it turned out, Jennie had nothing to worry about. Lucy took to her immediately and even painted with red (a colour she usually dislikes and refuses) when Jennie filled one of her brushes with it.
Lucy and Jennie painted for about half an hour - a long time for Lucy - and Jennie signed their piece afterwards on behalf of them both. Lucy took a bow towards the watching audience and then headed out on her morning walk while munching some fresh bok choy treats.
Many of Lucy’s paintings (with or without human collaborators), are exhibited and sold by the Valley Zoo Development Society. This not only has helped Lucy join the ranks of dozens of celebrated elephant artists, but the proceeds from the sale of the pieces go towards improving the Edmonton Valley Zoo (85%) and supporting the conservation work of the AZA and the International Elephant Foundation (15%).
To get your hands on your very own piece of Lucy’s work, contact the Valley Zoo Development Society.