Monday, 31 October 2011

Elephant No. 29: Pumpkin Carving

Today is Hallowe'en, so what better activity for today's elephant than carving a pumpkin?

In the British Isles, there is a long tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns from vegetables such as turnips and rutabagas. The carving of pumpkins originated with North American immigrants from the British Isles, who adopted the pumpkin for Hallowe'en because it was readily available, larger and much easier to carve.

The story of jack-o-lanterns originates in a folktale from the British Isles. In one version, a thief called Jack is being chased by irate villagers. While fleeing, he encounters the devil, who tells Jack that it his time to die. Stalling, Jack manages to trick the devil into turning himself into a coin. The devil jumps into Jack's wallet, only to find himself trapped next to the cross Jack keeps in his pocket. Jack lets the devil go only when the devil agrees never to take Jack's soul.

When Jack dies, being a terrible sinner, he cannot enter heaven. But because the devil had agreed not to take Jack's soul, Jack is also barred from hell. Discovering that Jack has nowhere to go, and no light to guide him, the devil mockingly tosses him an ember from hell that will never go out. Jack hollows out a turnip, puts the ember inside, and begins wandering the earth for all eternity. In some versions of the story, the will o' the wisp or ignis fautuus which can be seen flickering on the marshes is Jack and his lantern.

A traditional Irish turnip halloween lantern from the early 20th century
on display in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.

Jack-o-lanterns are also popular in contests. The most recent record for the greatest number of jack-o-lanterns carved and lit in one place was set on October 21, 2006, when 30,128 pumpkins were simultaneously lit on Boston Common. The world's largest carved pumpkin, weighing 666.33 kg (1,469 lbs.) was carved in Pennsylvania on October 31, 2005 by Scott Cully.

I normally like to make a scary jack-o-lantern face for my Hallowe'en pumpkins, but I don't really know how to make an elephant scary face. I'm also not a big fan of adding stick-on pumpkin bits, so I didn't want to add a pumpkin trunk. Instead, I thought I'd try something I've never done before: thinning out some areas of the pumpkin shell and piercing through others.

I started with a pumpkin that already had a sort of wrinkly shell, and drew a vague outline on it in permanent marker. So far, so good.

Then I realized that, if I wasn't going to end up with a gaping maw shaped like an elephant silhouette, I had to think in terms of stencilling. I don't think well in stencil.

Next I carved thin outlines all the way around, leaving tiny bits attached in various places along the line. That's about as stencil-y as I get.

I then decided that, to give the elephant some dimension, I'd shave off the thick outer rind on most of its head and ears. I had no idea how it might turn out. Although I've been carving pumpkins since I was a child—often squabbling with siblings over the honour—shaving things away and stencilling the outline were new to me. It was an interesting technique, and didn't take much longer than sawing straight through, but it was very messy.

I like the final result, but I still think I'll go back to my usual scary jack-o-lantern face next year.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants love all types of squash, but they are particularly fond of pumpkins. Many zoos give elephants pumpkins as a special treat at Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving. Elephants will generally stomp on a monster pumpkin first to break it up, but will eat smaller pumpkins whole. It takes an elephant only about three bites to devour a large pumpkin.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Elephant No. 28: Buttonwork

A few weeks ago, I visited something called "Buttonmania" at a textile festival in a nearby town. It was something of an eyeopener for me. I didn't realize how serious people can be about buttons, nor how specialized button-collecting can be.

I've had my own stash of buttons for years—some inherited from my mother and grandmother—but mine are just sorted into tackle boxes by colour. I've always liked the idea of having a big jar full of pretty buttons, but that's never seemed very practical to me. However, in a bow to the idea of a jumbled grouping of buttons, today I thought I'd try to draw an elephant by sewing buttons to fabric.

Button-like objects have been discovered as far back as the middle of the Indus Valley Civilization (ca. 2800–2600 B.C.), as well as in Bronze Age China (ca. 2000–1500 B.C.), and in Ancient Rome. These early objects were used more for decoration, or even as seals, rather than being put to work as clothing fasteners.

By about 2000 B.C., buttons made of seashell were being produced by the Indus Valley Civilization. These had holes in them, and were sometimes carved into geometric shapes, but were still used more for ornamentation than anything else.

It wasn't until the thirteenth century A.D. in Germany that buttons with buttonholes appeared. With the increased popularity of form-fitting clothing in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe, the use of buttons as fasteners finally became firmly established.

Interestingly, because buttons can be made from virtually anything, the composition of buttons reflects humankind's development of materials and technologies. Early ornamental buttons, for example, were made from bone, shell, stone and pottery. As metalworking developed, buttons were produced in bronze, silver, gold and various alloys. With growing understanding of the artistic uses of glass, buttons with delicate enamelling began to appear. And, with the rise of synthetics, plastics, and mass-production, buttons could now be made by the millions.

Today, the most common materials for buttons are plastics, wood, shell, and metals such as brass, steel and aluminum. Art buttons are still being made by today's artisans, however—usually either as art objects, or for high-end clothing.

Japanese Satsuma button, ca. 1930–1950

There are several types of button, categorized by the way they are attached.

Shank buttons have a pierced protrusion on the back. Button shanks can be made from the same material as the front of the button, or can be added later. When the shank is moulded directly into the back of the button, it is known as a "self-shank" button.

Flat or sew-through buttons are buttons with holes in the middle, and are the most common type of button. When used with heavy fabrics, a thread shank is often added.

Stud buttons are buttons that come in two pieces, pressed together to attach to heavier fabrics. These are the type of buttons most commonly found on jeans.

Button art seems to be a popular form of personal expression. Nowhere is this more evident than among London's pearly kings and queens. The wearing of black clothes heavily decorated with pearl buttons originated in the city during the nineteenth century. The style is usually credited to an orphan street sweeper named Henry Croft. At the time, London's street traders wore pearl buttons on the seams of their trousers, but Croft took it one step further, covering his entire outfit with pearl-button designs in order to draw attention to himself. By 1911 the first "pearly" society had been organized, and today there are three pearly organizations in London, all involved in charitable activities.

Pearly king and queen

Buttons are also used to create images ranging simple outlines of butterflies and flowers, to three-dimensional forms created by textile artists. The simple outline thing is definitely more my speed, so for today's elephant, I decided to create a two-dimensional elephant picture on fabric.

Although it was hard for me to disorganize my buttons (knowing I wouldn't be able to resist reorganizing them later), I emptied out a random selection of buttons and decided I would work from these.

I used black rayon velveteen as the backing, and put it on an embroidery hoop to keep it from flopping around while I tried to sew buttons to it. I thought I would be able to add buttons without drawing anything first, but I realized after the first three buttons that not drawing anything was a bad idea. In the first photo below, you can just make out the faint chalk lines of my sketch.

Once I had a general idea of the shape, I simply started adding buttons. The whole process took much longer than I thought it would. It's surprisingly difficult to work with buttons of all shapes and sizes when you're trying to "draw" with them. If I were to try this again, I think I'd start with a greater variety of sizes (particularly a good selection of smaller buttons), and perhaps stick to a specific colour palette, or even one colour.

I don't dislike the final result as much I thought I would while working on it, but I won't be doing this again anytime soon. On the other hand, I might make this into a small pillow at some point, which could perhaps convince me to like it a little more.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Old Bet was the first or second elephant brought to the United States, likely arriving in 1796. The earliest references to Old Bet occur in 1804, when she is mentioned as part of a menagerie in Boston. In 1808, she was purchased for $1,000 by Hachaliah Bailey—whose family would later help found the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Bailey had originally planned to use Old Bet as a draft animal on his farm. She attracted so much attention, however, that he decided to found a travelling menagerie instead. Starting out with Old Bet, a horse-drawn wagonload of hay, and an assistant, Bailey charged families an admission fee of either a two-gallon (7.5-litre) jug of rum, or a coin. He later sold shares in the endeavour, giving two other men the right to display Old Bet.

Tragically, Old Bet was killed while on tour near Alfred, Maine on July 24, 1816. Believing it was wrong for people to spend their money to view an animal, a farmer shot her. He was later convicted of the crime.

In 1821, Barnum's American Museum in New York announced that they had bought Old Bet's bones and hide, and mounted her remains for display at the Museum. Old Bet was also memorialized in 1825 with a statue at the Elephant Hotel, built in her memory in Somers, New York. The hotel still exists today, and in 1922 the circus elephant John L. Sullivan walked 53 miles to lay a wreath at the hotel in memory of Old Bet. Local children were given a holiday, and sang The Star-Spangled Banner at the ceremony.

The Elephant Hotel and statue of Old Bet—a National Historical Landmark
in Somers, New York
Photograph: Daniel Case

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Elephant No. 27: Painting with Tea

This morning while having my morning tea, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to try painting with tea. I've used tea to dye fabric in the past, and I've left tea rings on the kitchen countertop, but I've never tried painting with it.

Tea plants are native to Asia, and likely originated where southern China and northern India meet. Traditionally cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical climates, tea (Camellia sinensis) is an evergreen shrub that does best where there is more than 127 cm (50 inches) of rain each year. Tea plants also prefer acidic soils and elevations of up to 1,500 metres (4,900 feet) above sea level. At these altitudes, the plants grow more slowly, and the leaves have more flavour.

Camellia sinensis
From: Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (Köhler's Medicinal Plants) by Franz Eugen Köhler

Some say that the first recorded use of tea as a beverage occurred in China around the tenth century B.C. Others suggest the first recorded use is found in the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, written in the fourth or fifth century B.C.

Tea was brought from Asia to Europe during the sixteenth century by Portuguese traders. Catherine de Braganza, the Portuguese wife of Britain's King Charles II, brought tea-drinking to England around 1660. Interestingly, although the casual drinking of tea tends to be associated with Great Britain, tea was not widely consumed in the British Isles until the late nineteenth century.

In the early 1820s, the British East India Company began large-scale production of tea in India's Assam province and, by the end of the nineteenth century, Assam was the leading tea-producing region in the world. For over a century, India produced more tea than any other nation, although over 70% of Indian tea is consumed within the country itself.

Today, China produces more tea, primarily because there is more land available for cultivation. Sri Lanka is also world-famous for its tea and tea plantations, although it came relatively late to the industry: its first tea plantations were not established until 1867.

It takes approximately three years for a tea plant to be ready for harvesting, and four to twelve years for a tea plant to bear seed. Only the top 2.5 to 5 cm (1 to 2 inches) of mature plants are picked. This bract of leaves and buds is called a "flush", and the plant will grow a new flush every seven to fifteen days in the growing season. A tea plant can grow into a tree as high as sixteen metres (52 feet) high if left to its own devices. Cultivated plants are pruned to waist height for ease of picking.

Tea pickers in Sri Lanka

Fresh tea leaves come in a wide range of sizes and, generally speaking, the smaller the leaf, the more expensive the tea. There are six main varieties of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and post-fermented, categorized by the type of processing they undergo.

Tea leaves quickly wilt and oxidize if not dried soon after picking. As the leaves grow darker, their chlorophyll breaks down and tannins are released—a process known as "fermentation" in the tea business. At a certain stage, this darkening is halted by heat. In the production of black teas, heating and drying occur at the same time.

A quick primer on tea types:
• White tea: Wilted, but not oxidized
• Yellow tea: Not wilted or oxidized, but permitted to turn yellow
• Green tea: Not wilted or oxidized
• Oolong: Wilted, bruised and partly oxidized
• Black tea: Wilted, crushed and fully oxidized
• Post-fermented tea: Green tea that has been allowed to ferment

I was surprised to learn that there are actually a number artists who paint with tea. Some use fruit teas such as hibiscus to get a range of rich, saturated colours—which only makes sense, since hibiscus flowers and other components of fruit teas are used in dyeing fabric. Many of the artists who work with tea from the tea plant, however, seem to get darker colours than I got. I'm not sure if this is because I used somewhat light-bodied teas, or if I needed to layer the colour a bit more.

For today's elephant, I decided to create a palette of three teas, each from one of the world's primary tea-producing countries.

From China, I chose an Oolong.

From Sri Lanka, I chose a Ceylon tea.

And from India, I chose a tea from Assam.

I used the same quantity of each (a level dessert spoon) and added the same amount of water (2/3 cup or 150 ml) to each. I steeped them all for ten minutes, then strained out the leaves. From left to right, the teas are Oolong, Ceylon and Assam.

To see what kinds of colours I would be working with before I committed myself to paper, I did a small swatch with the three teas: left to right—Oolong, Ceylon and Assam. The Oolong had a more yellow tint to it than the other two, but it was also the lightest by far, so I used it primarily for highlights.

The paper had a bit of a yellow tint to it as well, so it was a pain to photograph. And, although it was a medium-range watercolour paper, the tea is so wet that the paper had a tendency to get wibbly. I could remove some of this buckling by running a hairdryer over the final piece, but it's never going to be entirely flat.

Painting with tea is a lot like painting with very thin watercolours. Because the colour is so faint, you're essentially layering washes of paint until you get the darkness of tint you want. In this case, the colour of all the teas was very similar to an ochre paint in a thinned-down wash, with slight—very slight—undertones of burnt sienna in the Ceylon and the Assam.

I started with a general sketch using the Assam tea, and a bit of the Ceylon.

Next, I added highlights with the Oolong, then just layered and added the various teas wherever I thought they were needed.

Strangely, the Assam tea clouded after awhile, and both of the others darkened in their containers, but it didn't seem to affect the tints. I also discovered that the colours lightened marginally as the teas cooled in their glasses.

I would have needed a lot more time to make this as dark as I originally envisioned, but I don't mind the final result.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Sadly, there are often conflicts on tea plantations between tea workers and wild elephants. In India and Sri Lanka, wild elephants often live in reserves and national parks adjacent to tea plantations, and frequently storm the fields at dusk in herds of twenty or more.

Part of the problem is that human activity has encroached on traditional elephant habitats and migration routes, leading to increased clashes between the two species. One sobering statistic: only a few years ago, India was 22% forest; today, a mere 6% is forested. Most of that forest has been lost to tea plantations and small-scale farming. This forces the elephants, who used to live and feed in the forest, out into the fields, where they come into direct conflict with humans.

Despite their reputation for gentleness, elephants are actually one of the world's most dangerous creatures. They can crush and kill any other land animal, including the rhinoceros. They also experience bouts of rage, particularly when a male elephant is in musth, and have even been accused of behaving in a vindictive manner. In Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, for example, groups of teenage elephants attacked a number of local villages following major culls of elephant herds.

In India and Sri Lanka, male elephants attack villages at night, destroying homes and killing people. Between 2001 and 2006, 239 people were killed by elephants in the state of Assam alone, and there are frequent run-ins between elephants and people across the tea-producing regions each year. These incidents often result in fatalities on both sides: elephants kill people and destroy crops; people respond by shooting and killing the offending elephants.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home

Friday, 28 October 2011

Elephant No. 26: Sugar Cookies

Today I didn't feel like dealing with weird chemical reactions, paint, matches, glue or folding, so I decided to bake instead. I rarely bake except at Christmas, but the alternatives pleased me even less than the idea of making cookies.

Although hard-tack wafers have existed for millennia, cookies appear to have originated in seventh-century Persia, coinciding with the rising use of sugar in the region. Some sources suggest that the first cookies may even have been created by accident. Since bakers habitually placed small amounts of cake batter in an oven to test its temperature, flat mini-cakes were often the result.

Cookies reached Europe via the Muslim conquest of Spain and, by the fourteenth century, they were common within every level of society, from street vendor to royal court. Travel was also becoming more widespread at the time, and cookies, like pies, were commonly taken on journeys. Hearty cookies made with nuts and dried fruit were particularly popular. 

Cookies came to North America with the English in the seventeenth century, although the name koekje—"little cake", later anglicized to "cookie"—arrived with the Dutch. Cookies of the time were usually fairly substantial, and included favourites such as jumbles, gingerbread cookies, and macaroons. The more delicate sugar cookie was not commonly made until the eighteenth century.

For today's elephant, I decided to use my grandmother's sugar cookie recipe, reproduced below. For years, my mother has made Hallowe'en cookies with this recipe, and my sister uses it at Christmas, so it is part of a fairly venerable tradition within my family. Except for me: for some reason, I never make sugar cookies, and I think this is only the third time I've used this recipe.

Ethel's Sugar Cookies
3/4 cup (180 ml) butter
1 cup (240 ml) white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon (45 ml) vanilla
2-1/2 cups (600 ml) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon (45 ml) baking powder
1 teaspoon (45 ml) salt (adjust if butter is salted)

Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat until fluffy again. Add flavouring—I don't really like vanilla anything all that much, so I added 1/4 teaspoon of almond flavouring instead—and stir.

Stir in baking powder and salt until well incorporated, then mix in flour only until a soft dough forms. If you stir the mixture too much after the flour is added, the cookies might end up a little on the tough side. Chill dough for an hour or so. I tend to chill any dough a little less than they say, because I don't like fighting with it when I roll it out.

Preheat oven to 375˚F (190˚C). Roll out dough to about 1/4 inch (0.6 cm) or slightly less. You may need to dust your cutting board and/or rolling pin with a bit of flour if the dough starts to get sticky.

Cut out shapes with your favourite cookie cutters. Sprinkle with decorations, or bake plain and decorate with icing afterwards. Bake 6–8 minutes. Yield: Four dozen 3-inch cookies.

It surprised me to discover that I already had this elephant cookie cutter, although I don't remember where or when I got it.

I decided to decorate the cookies before they went into the oven. I suppose I could have piped on some fancy icing after they were baked, but I thought that might feel a lot like drawing. I much preferred the idea of sugar cookies with sparkly sugar sprinkles.

Of course, I never get anywhere near the number of cookies a recipe says I should. I have no idea why. If it says the recipe makes three dozen, I'll get twenty cookies. If it says it makes two dozen, I'll get fourteen. This one says four dozen; I got eighteen.

Oh well, as long as they taste good and I'm not bringing them to some event which requires a specific number of something. Which, of course, I would probably never agree to do.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants have a definite sweet tooth. In addition to a diet of grasses, herbs, hay, leaves and bark, elephants like fruit, with a particular fondness for bananas and watermelon.

They also love sugar cane. In 2007, a newspaper in Thailand reported on a wave of looting along one of the country's major highways. The crime wave was caused by wild elephants living in areas around the highway. Over a period of several weeks, dozens of trucks carrying sugar cane had been broken into while parked along the side of the road. Forest rangers were charged with patrolling the highway for elephants craving a sugar fix, and officials imposed a nighttime curfew to try and bring the looting under control.

A young elephant caught in the act

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Elephant No. 25: Mendhi

In a bow to my East Indian heritage, today I decided to try mendhi—also known as a henna "tattoo". Despite the fact that I'm half Indian, I've only ever had mendhi on myself once, and that was because a local museum was offering free mendhi as part of an exhibition. My father gave me a large bag of henna years ago, so perhaps it's about time I tried it for myself.

Henna has been used to adorn the body since the late Bronze Age (1400–1200 B.C.). Originally associated with fertile young women, the use of henna as body decoration evolved into a ritual activity known as the Night of the Henna, which is still celebrated in various forms around the world.

The Night of the Henna developed primarily in countries where henna grew naturally. Celebrated on the eve of a wedding, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus all held special ceremonies in which both bride and groom were decorated with henna.

In addition to weddings, religious holidays and other important events were celebrated with henna decoration. The practice even extended to the adornment of favourite horses, donkeys and dogs, whose hooves, paws and tails were hennaed. As one source says, "When there was joy, there was henna."

In India, mendhi is applied in intricate patterns to the hands and feet of brides the night before the wedding, with the groom's initials often woven into the design. This ritual is usually part of a traditional celebration and, in some parts of India, the groom is painted as well. In Rajasthan, for example, the designs painted on men are just as elaborate as those painted on women.

In addition to using henna as a form of decoration, Muslims use henna as a dye for hair and beards. This is done in emulation of the prophet Mohammed, who dyed his beard with henna. Mohammed encouraged Muslim women to dye their nails with henna as well, as a way of distinguishing their hands from those of men. As a result, you will often see the hands, fingernails and toenails of Middle Eastern women dyed with henna. Highly elaborate mendhi patterns are also common.

Middle Eastern mendhi design

In Africa, many cultures use henna as a form of body adornment. Henna has ritual purposes as well, and is believed to confer protection when certain symbols or designs are drawn.

The henna paste used in mendhi tattooing is usually made from the powdered leaves of the henna plant. You can either make your own paste—made by mixing henna powder with a mildly acidic binder such as lemon juice or tea—or purchase henna paste in premixed cones. In rural India, women grind fresh henna leaves and mix them with oil. Although this is a less refined form of henna, the resulting tattoos are darker.

To create a mendhi tattoo, henna paste is applied to the skin with a small cone (similar in concept to an icing bag), or with implements such as a brush, a toothpick, or a small plastic bottle with a metal tip, known as a "jac" bottle. The painted area is then wrapped in plastic, medical tape or tissue to lock in body heat. This helps to intensify the colour. The wrapping is worn for as long as three to six hours, or even overnight, then removed, along with the remnants of the henna paste. Shorter times are also possible, but the longer you leave the paste and/or wrapping on, the darker and more lasting the tattoo will be. 

When the henna paste is first removed, the colour is a dark reddish brown. Within a day or so, the colour will darken as it oxidizes. The design can last up to three weeks, depending on the type of paste, the wearer's skin colour, and where it was applied on the body. Palms and the soles of the feet are favourite places, because their lack of keratin makes the henna react more strongly, and the thickness of the skin allows the henna to penetrate more deeply.

Indian mendi for hands and feet

For today's mendhi elephant, I opted to make my own mixture, and to use a jac bottle to apply it. The henna paste should be mixed the day before you plan to use it, in order for the stain-inducing molecules to release from the powder. I took dry henna powder, a bit of sugar, and enough lemon juice to create a toothpaste-like consistency, then left it to stew overnight.

The sugar is not necessary as part of the dyeing process, but gives the paste a stickiness that helps to prevent the henna from flaking off too quickly as it dries. You could dab the design with a sugar and lemon mix afterwards if you prefer, but I figured I'd muck up the design if I tried that.

It takes very little paste to create a henna design. I made far too much of the stuff, using only about a teaspoon or so to paint the entire design. Then again, I suppose it's always better to have too much than too little. 

I had no real idea what I was doing, so I started by drawing an elephant on the back of my left hand.

After that, I filled things in with flowers and leaves, with no clear pattern in mind. As a beginner, it might have been a good idea for me to sketch something first, but I was a bit impatient to get started. I had originally wanted to incorporate a bit of traditional Indian paisley, but for some reason I've never been able to draw paisley, so I decided against that particular trauma.

The process is simple, and if you have a bottle or cone with a small nozzle, the henna goes on easily and in relatively uniform lines. I would maybe go for a finer application tip than 0.9 mm next time, but this worked out okay. The paste will obviously have a tendency to glop if you squeeze too hard, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of it.

The only other thing to look out for is a tendency to smear the design while it's still wet. The lines dry rapidly, but I did smear a bit of the leaf design between my fingers. Luckily, it comes off easily—as long as you don't wait until it dries, when you'll be stuck with whatever smears you've made.

The paste starts out a dark green, then changes to a greenish-black as it dries. Heat is henna's friend, so I used a hairdryer to set the design and help it dry, then wrapped my hand and wrist in plastic wrap for about half an hour. Steaming or warming the pattern after the henna paste comes off will also darken it.

After that, I just let it flake off over the next few hours. You're apparently never supposed to use water to remove henna, as this tends to exfoliate the skin, taking the design with it. I was tempted to pick at it after a while, but I somehow managed to keep my paws off. That being said, it really did take hours to fall off. Must be the sugar I added to the paste, because I don't remember the museum mendhi taking this long.

When the henna first comes off, the design is orange—on me, really pale orange. So pale I can't photograph it. Over the next few days, it will darken to a deep reddish brown—or so I hope. I'm not sure why it's so pale, since I did everything the way it's supposed to be done. Oh well. Maybe I'll try it again sometime. Maybe not.

Ideally, I should keep it away from soap and water for 24 hours, but I definitely like to bathe daily, so that's not happening. It should ultimately last about two or three weeks before fading entirely.

Unless it fades by tomorrow morning.

Elephant Lore of the Day
One of the most impressive parts of many Indian festivities is the sight of richly decorated elephants.

Festival elephants are often painted first in bright colours with water-soluble paint. Once painted, they are dressed in heavily embroidered headgear, blankets and other accoutrements. Finally, they are decked out in jewels: ornaments for their tusks and tails, belled anklets, necklaces and whatever else can be added to an elephant's body. The final touch, if the elephant will be ridden rather than led, is often an elaborate howdah, sometimes with an embroidered umbrella.

Elephants at the Jaipur Elephant Festival

Nowhere are decorated elephants more celebrated than at the Jaipur Elephant Festival, held each spring in Rajastan. The festival begins with a traditional procession of decorated elephants through the streets of Jaipur. Once they reach the stadium where the Festival is held, the elephants parade up and down as though on a catwalk, apparently enjoying the attention as much as the crowd enjoys the display. The Festival also includes elephant beauty contests, an elephant tug-of-war, and even Holi (the throwing of coloured powder at one another) from an elephant's back.

Another jawdropping elephant spectacle is held in Sri Lanka each July, during the Festival of the Tooth—sometimes known as the Festival of Buddha's Tooth. Contained in a special box, the sacred relic is paraded through the streets of Kandy on the back of an elephant. What makes this particular festival so unusual is the nighttime Perahera procession, featuring elephants illuminated with fairy lights.

Perahera elephants during the Festival of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Elephant No. 24: Playing Card

Today I felt like doing something quiet and sedentary, so I decided to make a traditional playing card.

Playing cards were invented in Ancient China around the ninth century A.D. By the eleventh century, they could be found throughout Asia, likely transported along the Silk Road. Ancient Chinese "money cards" had four suits: coins, strings of coins, myriads (10,000) of coins, and tens of myriads. Some scholars believe that the first playing cards in China might have been a form of actual currency.

Playing cards came to Europe in the late fourteenth century, probably from Mameluke Egypt. The Egyptian deck had 52 cards, with four suits: polo sticks, coins, swords and cups. Each suit had ten number cards, featuring "pips" or suit symbols. There were also three "court" cards: King, Deputy King and Under-Deputy.

The Egyptian deck may have influenced the design of East Indian cards, although some suggest that it might have been the other way around. Early Indian cards are quite distinctive: they are circular, intricately hand-painted, and have anywhere from eight to thirty-two suits.

Ganjifa cards, with ten suits showing the ten avatars of Vishnu
Nineteenth century
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

By the late fourteenth century, the use of playing cards had spread across Europe. The earliest cards were individually handmade and expensive; however, by the fifteenth century, decks printed from woodcuts had begun to appear. Most early woodcuts were coloured after printing, either by hand or using a stencil. A deck usually had four suits, although five suits were also common. In Germany, the suits were hearts, bells, leaves and acorns. Italian and Spanish cards used swords, wands, cups and coins.

The four suits most commonly used today—hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs—originated in France around 1480. The club (trèfle, or clover, in French) was likely derived from the acorn on German cards; the spade, from the German leaf. Europeans also changed the court cards to represent European royalty: originally with King, Knight and Knave, and later with King, Queen and Jack.

At first, the King was always the highest card. As time went on, the Ace took on greater significance, eventually becoming the card with the greatest value. Some have suggested that this concept was given a boost during the French Revolution, when the peasantry wrested power from the monarchy. 

Court cards with mirror images were invented in the late eighteenth century. This was so that players would not be tempted to turn the court cards right side up, which might hint at the cards they held. The use of the manufacturer's logo on the ace of spades began during the reign of James I of England (1556–1625), who passed a law requiring an insignia to show that duty had been paid on the cards. Duty was paid on playing cards in the United Kingdom until 1960.

The most common size for playing cards is 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches (poker size) or 2-1/4 x 3-1/2 inches (bridge size). Traditionally, the Jack of Spades, Jack of Hearts, and King of Diamonds are drawn in profile—these are the "one-eyed" cards. The rest of the court cards are depicted full-face. The King of Hearts is the only King with no mustache, and is also typically shown with a sword his head, making him look as though he's stabbing himself.

For today's elephant, I decided to make a standard poker-sized card, based on the King of Hearts from the Bicycle Playing Card deck.

To start, I traced around one of the Bicycle cards. Expecting that I would screw up at least once, I made four blanks, all from inexpensive bristol board.

In order to create a mirror image of the Elephant King of Hearts, I drew a line across the middle of the card, then sketched in the elephant. Although I used the general idea of the King of Hearts from the Bicycle deck, I decided not to have the elephant stabbing himself in the head with a sword. Although the King of Hearts may traditionally be nicknamed the "suicide king", I didn't want a suicide elephant.

Drawing a mirror image freehand is actually more difficult than you'd think. Short of making a grid (which I knew I would greatly dislike), there's no easy way of doing this. What worked best for me was to draw a bit of the design on one half, then flip it around and draw as close to the same thing as possible on the other half. I guess I was hoping my fingers would have some sort of memory of what they'd just done. It wasn't always as precise as I would have liked, but it came out close enough.

I wanted something on the back as well, but the Bicycle Poker Card design is beyond what I can do on such a small surface with a limited amount of time. I did another mirror design with a few nods to the idea behind the Bicycle design, but it's nowhere near as detailed as the card that inspired it.

I had originally planned to use drafting pens for this. I had blue, red and black drafting ink on hand, and planned to fill the yellow in with coloured pencil afterwards. Unfortunately, the blue ink was old and not very cooperative, so after a few attempts with ink, I went with coloured pencil instead.

I wanted to stick more or less with the same colours as are on the Bicycle cards, so that's the colour palette I used.

I didn't get quite the crisp result I expected, but I certainly learned a lot about drawing mirror images. And old ink. And the propensity of coloured pencil to smudge. And how you can't erase lead pencil after you've put coloured pencil in the same vicinity.

It was definitely an interesting exercise. Just don't expect a pack of Elephant Poker Cards anytime soon.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In the French playing cards on which most modern decks are based, the King of Hearts is said to depict Charlemagne, Emperor of the Franks.

In A.D. 802, Charlemagne received an Asian elephant named Abul-Abbas from the Caliph of Baghdad. Abul-Abbas was brought from Baghdad by a man called Isaac, who had been sent to the Caliph on Charlemagne's orders. Following the deaths of the two other emissaries sent to Baghdad with him, Isaac returned alone with the elephant. The journey took many months: first by land along the Egyptian coast and across modern Algeria and Tunisia, then by sea from Tunisia to Europe.

Abul-Abbas was a big hit in his new home, and was exhibited many times at court. He was eventually housed in Augsburg, in today's southern Bavaria. Sadly, Abul-Abbas died of pneumonia when he was in his forties, likely from swimming in the Rhine. His bones were preserved at Lippenham, Denmark until the eighteenth century.

Some say that Abul-Abbas was an albino elephant. Legend also suggests that he was used as a war elephant in A.D. 804, when the Franks were attacked by the Danes. Mobilizing his troops, Charlemagne is said to have asked that Abul-Abbas be sent to him, so that the elephant could take part in the battle.

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