Monday, 23 July 2012

Elephant No. 295: Bookshelf Mural

This idea was inspired by Noah Scalin's book, 365: A Daily Creativity Journal, and seemed like the perfect thing to make for today's elephant. No messy paint, no tools, and the bookshelves need dusting anyway.

Video Fan Skull by Noah Scalin, 2008.
Photo: Noah Scalin

I wasn't sure if there was a trick to this sort of thing, so I just dove in. The rules I set myself were simple: I could only use books (no additional supports or props), and I had to fit it all inside the bookcase shelves.

I started by taking down all the little toys and things sitting in front of the books themselves. I used a pair of bookshelves sitting side by side as my "canvas", with a total width of 122 cm (48 inches). The shelves contain a collection of books on British history, and this is what they looked like before I started.

I thought briefly about taking all the books out before starting, but from previous experience, I know that's a heck of a lot of heavy lifting. So instead, I decided to visualize where the general outline of the elephant might go. I didn't think I was going to have much luck with an entire elephant, so I had more or less already visualized making just an elephant head.

I could already see that I was going to have a few issues with this activity:

1. The books vary wildly in size and spine width.
2. The shelves are different heights, meaning that not all books can be accommodated on all shelves.
3. The spines not only come in a dizzying array of colours, but most spines feature more than one colour.

All of which meant that this activity was going to be more like making a patchwork quilt or photomosaic. And when I was done, it was probably going to require serious squinting in order to see any kind of elephant.

My first idea was to do a sideways elephant, with trunk raised. The photo below shows this particular false start. The trunk is in lighter-coloured books, and curves up towards the left.

This might have worked as a design—but only if I'd had about twice as many bookcases. With this configuration, the elephant's head and ear was going to be mighty squished and attenuated. So I switched to a head-on elephant.

I started by laying out the top of the elephant's head and part of its trunk, beginning with the second shelf from the top. Already I could see that I was definitely going to run out of light-coloured book spines with this collection of books.

I had already made quite a few mistakes. The first was not starting on the topmost shelf. The second was trying to make eyes with dark-coloured books. I didn't have books dark enough for this to work. You can sort of see my first stab at eyes on the second shelf in the photograph below.

I didn't much like the way this was going, but I stuck with it long enough to move stuff up a shelf and rejig everything some more. I decided that, instead of fooling around with black-spined books, I'd lay small books across a blank area to make eyes. It felt a little like cheating, but after three hours of stacking and restacking books, I didn't care anymore.

I had to scavenge books with light-coloured spines from all over the house. We have a huge home library, but light spines were curiously rare. It was also hard to find light-coloured spines in the right heights, adding to this delightful challenge. And I made an incredible mess in the library. There are books from all over the house, in higgledy-piggledy stacks across the floor. The whole idea of having to put them all away makes me want to ignore everything and have a bowl of ice cream on the front porch instead.

This is certainly not the easiest elephant I've ever made. I would have thought that stacking books in some sort of pattern would be boring but fairly straightforward. It isn't.

I must have fussed with every shelf a good dozen times. Each. First the elephant's head was too wide. Then it was too narrow. Then the trunk was too fat at the very bottom. Then too skinny. Then the eyes were too far apart. Then the ears were too big. Then they were droopy and odd. It got to the point where I was chasing my tail, and it wasn't getting any better. You know it's time to stop when you begin cursing inanimate objects with great fluency.

In the end, I don't hate the elephant head I created, but I would never do this activity again. It took me nearly four hours to arrive at the final result, and it looks more like a zombie elephant than anything you'd see in real life. And that's only if you squint.

Worse still, I have to take it all apart and put literally hundreds of books back where they belong. Maybe I'll take a page out of Scarlett O'Hara's playbook and think about it tomorrow.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In many parts of India, elephants have been domesticated for centuries, if not millennia. As a result, a sort of Bible has evolved over the years to guide buyers in determining whether a potential purchase is auspicious. The list is quite long, but I've included a few of my favourites. For the full list of important elephant characteristics, click here.

• An auspicious elephant should have a dignified look, with a raised head and low back.
• The eyes must be clear, honey-coloured and moist. The pupils must be dilated. Red eyes indicate an aggressive temperament. Also be wary of elephants with a fixed gaze.
• Tusks are important in judging an elephant. Ideally, the tusks should grow downwards, curve up and be evenly separated, with the colour of butter or sandalwood.
• The trunk should be fleshy, broad, and trail on the ground. The tip of the trunk should be long, triangular and strong.
• The tail must be long enough to touch the ankle, but not so long that it trails on the ground. It should not have any twists or kinks.
• Elephants usually have eighteen toenails: five on each foreleg, and four on each hind leg. Occasionally an elephant will have 20 toenails, which is seen as very auspicious. Elephants with 16 nails are considered inauspicious for individuals, but okay for institutions like temples.
• When multiple hairs arise from a single root, it is seen as an indicator of long life, and is a good sign.
• If the insides of the mouth or upper surface of the tongue is black, the elephant is considered to have an unpredictable character.
• If the elephant makes a gurgling sound when seeing its favourite mahout or owner, it is a good sign. If the elephant remains motionless, not fanning its ears when approached, beware.

Elephant with mahout in Kerala, India, 2010.
Photo: Ian MacKnight

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India


  1. I feel your pain! Here's how my own bookshelf creation came out: As you can see DVDs are much easier to manipulate.

    1. Noah, I knew you'd get it! I didn't know you'd also done a Skull Shelf. I like it very much, but I know exactly how frustrating it was. Oddly enough, it never occurred to me to turn the books around. How dumb am I??

  2. Oh my goodness Sheila, you are amazing! All that work with your books. What a good result!

    1. Thanks so much, Mim! I still haven't had the heart to clean up the mess of rejects all over the floor though...