As international Elephant Parade hits Dana Point, local artists’ contributions shine
By Andrea Papagianis
One-by-one intricately painted elephant sculptures paraded from the sands of Doheny State Beach, to join their herd, placed in pods around the park’s greens. Dozens of life-sized baby, Asian elephant statues gained quick public prestige as hundreds of park-goers posed for photos and examined each and every detail. The elephants had arrived, and the community took note.
It was the public’s first opportunity to view the 37 elephant sculptures collectively, coming to Dana Point as part of the international open-air exhibit, Elephant Parade: Welcome to America.
For weeks leading up to their arrival, individual sculptures made cameo appearances at city events and the four major hotels that led the way to their coming to town. The American journey began nearly four years ago when U.S. Ambassador to the Elephant Parade, local resident Dana Alan Yarger, began booking artists to participate in the parade.
Now, the elephants have officially made their first United States appearance, and co-founder of the Asian Elephant Foundation and its premier fundraising event, the Elephant Parade, Mike Spits, said it is all part of his American dream.
“The thing about Americans is they have a very positive attitude,” Spits said on Friday evening at Doheny as hundreds took in the pieces of artwork. “We try to promote a positive message and we do it in a different way by bringing pleasure, joy and happiness … I believe America is really open for that model and that is what we have experienced here today.”
Spits’ father, Marc, was traveling in northern Thailand in 2006 when he stumbled into the world’s first Asian elephant hospital, called Friends of the Asian Elephants. As he wandered the grounds a truck approached and an elephant injured by a landmine appeared.
They called her Mosha, the tribal word for star in the Karen language, and she became just that. Mosha lost her leg and needed surgery and a prosthetic leg to survive.
Rather than write a check, Spits conceptualized the Elephant Parade, a multi-week exhibition of 5-foot-tall Asian elephant sculptures, decorated by local and international artists and later auctioned off.
And now after its first appearance in Rotterdam, where son Mike lives, and nearly a dozen international parades thereafter, Mosha is thriving with her one-of-a-kind prosthesis and the foundation has raised more than $6 million to date for the preservation of the endangered species.
“Mosha is handicapped, but she walks and she is a happy, naughty elephant,” Mike Spits said. “She is the star … and she is really the spokes-elephant for the Elephant Parade and for all the other Asian elephants that need a fighting chance.”
The resorts of Dana Point that make up the city’s Tourism Business Improvement District—the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort; The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel; Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa and DoubleTree Suites Doheny Beach—approached Spits, about being the marquee American event, and truly embraced the cause he said.
It is an embracing of a cause that has reverberated throughout the community.
“It’s truly a declaration to the world about how important, not only compassionate causes and environmental causes are, but the power of art and culture to advance those causes,” said City Councilman Scott Scheoffel, who himself has been a champion of highlighting arts in the city.
While the parade has included locals in the design process from Luxemburg to Tokyo, a large-scale incorporation of the community’s youth appeared for the first time in California.
Earlier this spring, nearly 2,000 fourth- and fifth-grade students throughout Capistrano Unified School District took part in a two-week educational program and designed their own sculptures inspired by their experience. The design by Morgan Finelt, from Ambuehl Elementary, was chosen to join the ranks of renowned artists. With the help of Kent Baker, the visual arts instructor at Capistrano Valley High School, Finelt’s design was transferred to the larger canvas and now sits high above Dana Point at Lantern Bay Park.
“It is kind of dark for the elephants and I wanted to shine a little light on them, so I used the bright colors,” Morgan said. “I also really love diamonds and I really think that they show happiness.”
Morgan and Baker were recently recognized by the CUSD Board of Trustees for participating in the Elephant Parade. The trustees and Superintendent Joseph Farley praised the pair’s work and showed support for the exhibition.
For the next 10 weeks, elephant statues will be on display around Dana Point from celebrity artists like Lily Tomlin, Khloe Kardashian, Cesar Millan, Wyland and Southern California-native spray paint artist Chor Boogie.
“Once you get to a certain platform and you can help more, that is your responsibility,” said Cesar Millan, known for his dog training on the National Geographic show “Dog Whisperer” and animal activism.
“Today it was helping the Asian elephant and tomorrow it could be something else. To me animals represent that, they help humans all the time to stay alive and so that is what I want to do in return,” Millan said. “As a father, that is what I am leaving my kids, I don’t want to leave financial wealth, I want to leave consciousness.”