Conservation Biology, Illustration

Ivory on her throne

Blessed are those who conquer the natural world.

"Ivory on her throne" (Arlene Ellis, 2014)

“Ivory on her throne” (Arlene Ellis, 2014)

Cynthia Moss, who runs the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, in Kenya, has been studying and protecting elephants since 1968. She says she’s “heard these same arguments forever…”

Moss sees firsthand the impact a death of an elephant has on the survivors, especially the death of a female. “The killing of a female is probably more devastating for other individual elephants because they live in tight knit families. In Amboseli, you’ll see a family of 20 individuals—grandmothers, mothers, nieces, cousins, sisters. They stay in the family their whole lives and are very bonded.”

When a female is killed, the repercussions can last a very long time, Moss says. If the mother of a three- or four-year-old calf is killed, the calf will die. The survival rate of elephants up to 20 years old is even compromised if their mother is hunted. And if a matriarch is shot, “it’s absolutely devastating. It will have ramifications for years.”

Moss says that over her decades of work she has never once been persuaded by any of the arguments in favor of sport hunting. “The loss of an elephant is a tragedy,” she says. “And killing an elephant or any other animal for fun is abhorrent.” 

-National Geographic

Conservation Biology, Quotes

Supplying animal parts for the sake of art

"Blinged to extinction" (Illustration by Arlene Ellis, 2013)

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the West Africa black rhino (D. b. longipes) is classified as Probably Extinct. Although, in 2011 the subspecies was declared officially extinct. The black rhino used to live across most of the Savannahs of West Africa, but threats such as hunting, poaching and habitat loss contributed to its demise. These are the same threats affecting the remaining rhino subspecies. Over the last few years hundreds of rhinos have been poached for their horns, which some cultures believe have medicinal properties. Then there’s the rhino-horn art trade, a trade in which artisans create ornate sculptures out of rhino horns; this also happens with elephant tusks (ivory trade).

In July of 2011, Lark Mason appraised a set of five Chinese cups carved from rhinoceros horn, circa 1700, valued at $1 to $1.5 million, setting a ROADSHOW record. The 300-year-old objects were undoubtedly the work of master artisans, and were made in a time when rhinoceros were more plentiful than they are today: Currently, there are only five surviving species of rhinoceros, and every one of them is threatened, some critically so, because of desire for their horns. The result is that many people find the trade in rhinoceros-horn antiques grossly unethical, even when it is legal. -Ben Phelan (Antiques Roadshow)

I’ll  not addressing the issues related to poaching animals for medicinal reasons today, but I will discuss the moral considerations related to using animal parts for art. What I find remarkable about the above quote is that it implies that killing animals for art is fine as long as the animals are plentiful. Not many people in the western world feel guilty about leather because cows are plentiful and leather is just a byproduct of the meat industry. And perhaps if rabbits, foxes and seals were factory farmed for meat maybe people wouldn’t feel bad about the fur trade. Does this mean that if it were very easy to breed rhinos, easy as it is to breed cows, we have no qualms about killing them for their horns?


Many of us don’t question the argument that it’s morally acceptable to use animal parts for art if the animal is abundant and the animal part is simply a byproduct of a larger process. My question is why is it acceptable in general to use their parts for art? Before you considered the supply, before you considered the byproduct, you had a fundamental belief of acceptability. For instance, in modern times we find it acceptable to kill thousands of people (i.e. the enemy) in war times, but unacceptable to desecrate their bodies. In the past it was acceptable in certain cultures to use the remains of war enemies  for artistic purposes. Now it’s taboo. Why is unacceptable if the person is already dead? His or her deceased body is just a byproduct of war and there are still billions of people remaining on the planet. The fundamental reason may simply be that we empathize with our species, so regardless of supply (human population) or if the death is an acceptable byproduct (as in the case of war) we are fundamentally morally opposed to supplying human parts for art. (Unless the body is being used for science, then we pay to see it. See “The Bodies Revealed Exhibit.”) 

"The return of the mojo" (Designed by Arlene Ellis, 2013)

It’s silly that I have to point this out, but I don’t condone using human remains for art. I’m simply trying to understand the premises of an argument. It seems to me the issue of having a steady supply and byproduct, are not what we should be focusing on. If these rationalizations remain the focus, we will always be dealing with different species going extinct. I think perhaps it’s time for us to reevaluate the fundamental belief underlying these rationalizations.  Although art enriches our lives, a leather boot, a fur coat, an ivory statue is not essential to our survival.

***I’ve owned leather products whole life and it’s only recently I’ve  made a conscious decision to stop buying them. I was no longer convinced by my “abundance” and “byproduct” rationalizations.***

By the way, I’m very open to respectable debate  🙂

Conservation Biology, Quotes, Sustainable Design, Work In Progress

How a bad illustration can inspire something deeper

The Cape Perrot Plants an Idea (WIP illustration, Arlene Ellis, 2013)

What you’re seeing above is a fashion illustration gone wrong. I had a completely different vision in my head. Initially I used a vintage fashion illustration to inspire the pose and silhouette.  In this case I was more concerned about drawing the textiles than the construction of the garments.

The Cape Perrot Plants an Idea (Sketch, Arlene Ellis, 2013)

Half-way through the drawing I thought to use a bird’s head instead of a human head, so I googled “parrots, National Geographic.” One of the first results was a National Geographic article about the endangered green and gold Cape parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Cape parrots are endemic to South Africa and are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss. They usually eat yellowwood fruits but because the yellowwood forests are being cut down for agriculture the birds no longer have a steady food supply and are becoming malnourished, which makes them more susceptible to infections.

After I read the National Geographic article I replaced the human head with a Cape parrot head. Then I infused the textile with elements of the parrot’s life: the colors of its feathers, the shapes of the yellowwood fruit, the color of  vasculature to hint at infection and finally the color of the sky. Still not satisfied with the illustration I tried to salvage it digitally. Needless to say, things didn’t turn out well :).


So why am I explaining all this? I’m terrible at maintaining journals or even sketchbooks because I’m my own worst critic. When drawing or writing for myself, I can’t help but rip apart everything I’ve created (not literally). However, because my blog is public it offers an audience and weirdly enough I feel more compelled to create for an audience than just for myself. In the end though, the main audience member I’m speaking to is my future self. The future me who will have accomplished her dream of becoming a successful fashion designer. The future me who will ask, “How did I get here?” She will look back on these posts and chuckle about how seriously I took myself and my mistakes.

After I finished this fashion illustration, I watched a video of conservation biologists Steve Boyes discuss his dedication to saving the Cape parrot. I was so moved by the plight of these beautiful birds, that I realized I wanted to help them. Yes the first illustration the birds inspired was crap, but it has inspired me to dig deeper.

“Just two weeks ago, I was in the Okavango Delta…but when you’ve come to this place it’s not a wilderness area anymore. We’ve changed it too much. We’ve lost too much of it. And now we must give back.” -Steve Boyes

The main reason I started Organic Lyricism is to instill an appreciation of the natural world in other people. I was growing frustrated by how so many of us take from nature but don’t care to protect it. People like Steve Boyes inspire me to keep making mistakes because there is a greater goal beyond satisfying my ego. If I can harness my talent to create something that people will buy to help protect a species like the Cape parrot, then I’ll keep taking risks.

By the way, if you’re interested in art designed to give back then I invite you to check out my limited edition posters. I hope you have a great day!