Friday, 28 September 2012

Elephant No. 362: Glass Vials

For a couple of weeks now, I've been eyeing a set of glass vials in a discount store, trying to think of a way to use them for an elephant. I admit that I was drawn to them mostly because I like little containers of any kind, but I didn't want to buy them unless I could make something interesting. I thought of filling them with sand or beads, grouping them, glueing them, and even buying multiples and stacking them. Then it occurred to me that I could simply paint them to produce a modular elephant herd.

The word "vial" comes from the Greek phiale and the Latin phiala, meaning "a broad, flat container". Technically speaking, a vial or phial is a small glass or plastic bottle. Vials are most commonly used to store medications and small samples.

Glass vial discovered in Syria, ca. 4th century A.D.
Collection of the Louvre, Paris
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen

Glass vials have been around for millennia, used for everything from medicines, herbs and spices, to tomb offerings of gold and blood. Although traditionally sealed with corks, wax or even glass stoppers, modern vials often have flip-tops, snap caps and other closures. The bottom of a vial is usually flat. The small vials used in laboratories—often with a volume of 10 ml at most—are known as "bijou bottles" or "McCartney's bottles".

For today's elephant, this was the set of four vials I bought, for under $1.50. They range in size from 7 m to 20 ml (0.24 to 0.68 U.S. fl. oz.), so I guess a couple of them are technically "bijou bottles".

I already had a set of glass paints that I'd used for my painting on glass post, so I decided to use those, along with some regular acrylic paint.

 My idea was fairly simple: use all four vials to create a mini-herd of elephants.

I thought briefly about drawing elephants on the vials first, then decided I'd rather just get started. I began by roughing in an elephant on each of the four vials. The four pictured below are not necessarily my first attempt at each. For one or two of them, I wiped off my first try while it was still wet and started over.

These were pretty streaky-looking when the light shone through, so I waited for them to be dry to the touch, then glopped on more grey paint. When that dried, I added a few black lines for definition, and a bit of pink in the ears, the tip of the trunk, and on the toes. The elephant with an open mouth also got a bit of pink in the mouth, and two elephants got white tusks.

My idea from the beginning was to make a series of little bottles that could be grouped together to resemble a herd of elephants. I thus took advantage of the clear glass to draw some long grass on the side opposite to the elephants.

To finish up, I added dots of green under the elephants, and dots of gold above the elephants' heads, and above the grass on the reverse.

It only took me about two hours to paint all four of these, but that was partly because I didn't wait for the different layers of paint to dry. Although all of the paints dried relatively quickly, I was definitely risking smudges—particularly when it came to the dots. If you try this, I would recommend a bit more patience than I had, just in case. I didn't smudge anything this time; but if I had, it would have been pretty difficult to remove the offending area on something this small.

In real life, these are quite fun. The light doesn't shine through them as strongly as it does in these photographs, so they don't look quite as streaky. They're also fun to group, and actually look a little like a herd of elephants seen in the distance, which was exactly what I'd hoped for.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Suleiman was an Asian elephant presented to Archduke Maximilian II in the sixteenth century. Born in the stables of the King of Ceylon in 1540, Suleiman was originally presented as a gift to the Prince of Portugal in 1542.

Although flattered by the auspicious and generous gift, the Portuguese ultimately found Suleiman's care and maintenance too expensive and complicated. They accordingly offered him to Archduke Maximilian, who happened to be the Prince's uncle. Suleiman was sent to Spain then Genoa by ship, and finally overland through the Alps to Austria. He arrived in Vienna in 1552.

Woodcut of Suleiman, ca. 1552.

Suleiman proved highly popular with the Austrian people. He was drawn and painted, and was celebrated in poems and songs. He was installed with some ceremony in the menagerie at Kaiser-Ebersdorf castle, but died only a year and a half later, in December 1553.

Suleiman's afterlife was rather bizarre. Although the Archduke had a commemorative medal struck featuring the elephant, he also had no qualms about having Suleiman's body vivisected and distributed across the Holy Roman Empire.

Suleiman's right front foot and part of a shoulderblade were given to the Mayor of Vienna, who had them fashioned into a chair that can still be found in Kresmünster Abbey. His skin was stuffed and put on display in Vienna until 1572, when Maximilian decided to give it to Albert, Duke of Bavaria.

Suleiman's stuffed effigy survived for centuries in the Wittlesbach royal collection and the Munich Residenz. Ultimately transferred to the Bavarian National Museum, Suleiman was stored, forgotten, in a cellar. Although his effigy survived even bombing raids on Munich in 1943, conditions in the cellar were damp, and Suleiman's skin mildewed. Following the war, Suleiman was dismembered yet again, and his hide was sold—rather poignantly—for shoe leather.

That isn't the end of his story, however. So famous was Suleiman that several books have been written about him, including the recent novel, The Elephant's Journey by José Sararamago. He has also been featured in at least two exhibitions—one of which was presented in Vienna, where Suleiman had been so celebrated in life.

Commemorative medal designed by
Michael Fuchs following Suleiman's
death in 1554.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Fauna & Flora International


  1. Well, Sheila you are only a few days away from reaching your goal! Congratulations on completing a year of making lovely art and blogging about it daily. I wish you success in whatever you plan to do after day 365. Maybe you plan to just take a rest. What a lot of work!

    I attended a fundraising event this week and bought a piece of "elephant art". The painting was done by Wanpe, a female elephant at the Maesa Elephant Camp in Thailand. As i carried the picture out to the car, I thought of you wondered if what I had done was good or bad for elephants.

    Thank you providing very interesting reading for the past year.

  2. Thanks, Barb! That's very kind of you.

    I'm surely taking a rest for at least a few days. I may continue to write about elephants in some fashion, albeit not on a daily basis. I know you know how exhausting blogging can be.

    As for your elephant art, some people say it's bad to train elephants to paint, but on balance I would tend to disagree. For one thing, it brings in much-needed money for elephant care, which gives the elephants at a facility like Maesa a better quality of life. Painting is also something that many high-quality zoos do in their "elephant enrichment" programs. Elephants naturally make designs in the ground with their trunks and sometimes with sticks, so some are quite keen on using a paintbrush—or at least don't find it unnatural. I read about one elephant at the Calgary Zoo who really liked painting her abstracts for a couple of years. When she stopped liking it, they simply dropped painting from their elephant program.

    So, I guess it's mostly whether the elephant who painted your picture liked painting it, or was trained to paint by being poked with a metal hook. I think you should think of your painting as being produced by a happy elephant who liked wielding a brush, thereby bringing more money to his/her facility and thus a better quality of life to all the elephants living there.

    From what I've read, Maesa is also one of the better Thai facilities. As far as I know, they don't make their elephants do circus tricks like walking a tightrope, and keep them in good health, while also helping to increase elephant numbers and sensitize people to their value.

    I think you did a good thing for elephants, and I love that you even know the name of the elephant who painted it!