Originally created 10/14/02

Thai artist putting his talent to waste



BANGKOK, Thailand -- The latest work of a veteran Thai artist is a load of waste. Mounds of elephant waste, in fact.

A compulsive experimenter, 74-year-old Boonthueng Ridthikert recently exhibited about 100 landscapes painted with artificially colored elephant dung. He painted them on a special canvas made from - what else - elephant dung.

"It's a very easy medium to work with. It sticks easily on the paper and has a nice texture," Boonthueng said in an interview at the gallery that showed his paintings of Thai and American countryside.

Having spent several years in the United States, Boonthueng saw similarities in the landscapes of the two countries and produced the show titled "Inspiration from Thailand to USA."

Boonthueng's favorite piece is the captivating "Reed Tree" with its swaying rushes drooping over water lilies and red flowers on the shore of Khoe Juk lake in northeastern Thailand.

Viewed from 10 feet away, it appears to be an oil painting. A closer look reveals the relief formed by the thick dung paint plastered over the canvas.

Boonthueng is not the first painter using elephant dung, but his work did not cause the fuss that a dung-dotted Virgin Mary portrait by Nigerian-born Chris Ofili did at a New York museum in 1999. The painting so incensed then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that he cut a $7.2 million city subsidy to the museum; a judge later restored it.

In Thailand, art critics have praised Boonthueng's work.

"I am kind of intrigued by how he uses elephant dung as a medium," said Cheng Zu, a leading Bangkok-based critic.

"Is it gimmicky or kitschy? There is no right or wrong when an artist uses different kind of strategies to create attention for himself or his art," said Cheng. "Art is all about experimentation."

Boonthueng, a four-time national award winner for his more traditional oil and water color works, is no stranger to experimentation.

In his late 20s, he was the star of a popular live TV show, "Look Through the Brush," on which he painted pictures to accompany the singing of folk songs. Each song lasted five to six minutes, and he created six paintings every show in a frenzied display of speed and dexterity with air brushes and acrylic paint.

A U.S. Embassy cultural attache who saw the program arranged for him to tour the United States in 1959. A four-month, 28-state swing saw him produce hundreds of paintings to go with a Thai dancer's performance.

"It was a lot of fun. I made a lot of money under the table," selling the paintings without permission from the organizers, he said, his ruddy face splitting into a grin.

He lived in the United States for three years in the 1980s and now travels to California frequently to visit a son.

In 1986, he began experimenting with new materials, creating paintings with strips of colored cloth, human hair and twigs.

Boonthueng says the idea of using elephant dung as a medium came to him during the 1997 Asian economic crisis when he found imported materials unaffordable. One day while driving in the beach city of Pattaya he had to slow down behind an ambling elephant.

"I saw the elephant drop a load of dung. Boom! Something flashed in my mind," said Boonthueng.

He bought a sack, scooped up the dung and rushed home. He bought three more sacks of dung from an elephant stable and set about experimenting, overruling his family's protests about the unpleasant odor.

Initially, he made drawing paper of the dung, but found water colors ran and oil paints wouldn't stick. So he decided to make dung paint, too.

The dung was soaked in water for two days with chlorine to bleach it, purify it and remove the odor. He created colors by mixing dung paste with natural dyes made from crushed rocks and various types of mud.

To make paper, dung paste is mixed with tapioca skin and banana leaves, which gives it form. The mixture is flattened over a wooden frame. Upon drying, the sheet is peeled off.

Boonthueng, who did his first dung painting six years ago, said he has been successful with the medium and plans to donate part of his earnings to elephant conservation efforts in Thailand.

He said his first sale was to former Finance Minister Tarin Nimaheminda, for thousands of dollars, and his second was to a professor he met during a trip to California. Boonthueng said he was about to ask $300 for the work when the professor offered $3,500.

"I was so taken aback, but I took the money," he said.

On the Net:

Boonthueng Ridthikert's page: http://www.geocities.com/elephantmanurepainting/art.html

Artist's second page: http://www.geocities.com/elephantmanurepainting/art2.html

Thai Elephant Conservation Center: http://www.changthai.com