Sunday, 16 October 2011

Elephant No. 14: Toothpick Art

There are people who can create massive sculptures with toothpicks. And then there's me. I will never have the patience to build a Rube Goldberg machine featuring San Francisco, or reproduce a cathedral, so a small elephant head is just about my speed.

Toothpicks are the world's oldest implements for cleaning teeth—there is even evidence that the Neanderthals picked their teeth with some kind of tool. Bronze toothpicks have been found in prehistoric graves in the Alps, as well as in early Mesopotamia. Delicate silver toothpicks were used in Ancient Greece and Rome and, in the seventeenth century, toothpicks were jewelled luxury items.

The first toothpick-manufacturing machine was developed in 1869 by Alessandro Franco, with a number of imitators soon following suit. Today, toothpicks are usually cut from a wood such as birch.

It is hard to determine when the first toothpick art was created. Many of today's artists have been working in toothpicks since childhood, and it is entirely possible that toothpick art has been around as long as mass-produced toothpicks have been in existence.

I had originally thought of using rounded toothpicks for today's elephant, then decided that flat toothpicks would be easier to glue to one another. I had also originally thought of using a glue gun to shorten gluing and drying time, but decided that a glue gun would make a complete mess and probably burn my fingers. Instead, I used carpenter's glue, which is obviously made for wood, and which creates a surprisingly strong bond in about fifteen minutes.

This elephant took way longer than I expected. Since I'd never made anything with toothpicks before, I had no idea what I was in for. I should have paid attention to the descriptions of cityscapes that took 35 years for the artist to make, or low-relief sculptures that took 40 full-time working days. And those were people who knew what they were doing. I optimistically figured, however, that a small elephant of some sort is nothing like a cityscape or a huge low-relief mural, and shouldn't take more than an hour or two.

This took me six hours, and it's in very low relief. And it's hardly realistic. Toothpick art is a more challenging activity than you'd think. It was made even more challenging by the fact that I couldn't find any practical instructions online, so I was kind of winging it.

First you have to think in terms of creating a superstructure of some sort. I didn't want to use anything like a cardboard backing, so I was limited to glueing toothpicks to one another in an overlap, in order to create a foundation. It's not completely tedious if you've got a bit of time, but it was very difficult for me to wrap my mind around how to attach what to where. It's a bit like toothpick architecture or toothpick bridge-building. Such things are not my forte. I must never be allowed to build a tree fort.

I was also slowed down by bits of toothpick constantly sticking to my gluey hands—despite the fact that I had a damp rag handy to keep this from happening. There's nothing worse, when you're trying to carefully glue down a tiny bit of toothpick, than to have it stick to your fingertip instead. Aggravating isn't the word. I had originally intended, by the way, to only use full-length toothpicks, thinking that would make me more of a toothpick-art purist. However, I quickly discovered that there was no way to make this elephant if I didn't cut a few toothpicks into smaller pieces.

It also helps to have a bit of masking tape around to tape down things that would prefer to spring up. Once they've dried, the masking tape can be easily removed, and I didn't need it too often.

I can't believe I had originally thought of making an entire three-dimensional elephant. No matter how small I'd have tried to make it, it would have taken me days.

I don't totally hate the final result, but it reminds me more of  Swedish wheat weaving than the toothpick masterpiece I originally envisioned.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants have long been used in Asia's logging industry. Unfortunately, in recent years, former logging elephants have been thrown out of work in many countries.

In Thailand, for example, there were over 4,000 working elephants as late as the 1980s. They transported people and goods, ploughed land, and harvested logs. When Thailand outlawed rainforest logging in 1990, elephant owners had to find ways to feed their elephants—each of which can eat as much as 227 kilograms (500 pounds) of food per day. Some owners turned to illegal logging, avoiding detection by forcing their elephants to work harder and faster. Elephants were jabbed with spears and hooks, and were often fed bananas laced with amphetamines to keep them going. This left the elephants drug-addicted, sick and exhausted.

Other owners took their elephants into the cities to beg from tourists. These city elephants also scavenged on garbage and plants polluted by car fumes, and became malnourished. In Bangkok, authorities ultimately banned elephants from entering the city. Today, however, there are still some 300 elephants begging on the streets of Bangkok, taking to crowded freeways at night to get to tourist areas. The only legal use of elephants in Thailand today is in festivals and other forms of public entertainment.

There are, however, many sanctuaries throughout Asia for former working elephants, including several in Thailand. Despite calls to release these elephants back into the wild, where it is believed they would adapt quite quickly, there is not enough room left for them to roam, and sanctuaries remain their best chance at a good life.

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

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