Artist interview: Wendy Maruyama on elephants and activism

For the next four months, a bell will chime every 15 minutes in the central glass gallery of the Chrysler Museum of Art.

Artist Wendy Maruyama poses in front of her piece "Satao" at the Chrysler Museum of Art. The elephant mask is one of six in her exhibit "The wildLIFE Project," which opened at the Chrysler on Thursday. (Adrienne Mayfield/Southside Daily)
Artist Wendy Maruyama poses in front of her piece “Satao” at the Chrysler Museum of Art. The elephant mask is one of six in her exhibit “The wildLIFE Project,” which opened at the Chrysler on Thursday. (Adrienne Mayfield/Southside Daily)

The bell comes from a piece named the “Bell Shrine,” and represents the death of an elephant, which artist Wendy Maruyama says happens every 15 minutes.

The “Bell Shrine” is a piece in Maruyama’s new exhibit, “The wildLIFE Project,” which opened at the Chrysler on Thursday.

The exhibit advocates for an end to illegal poaching of African elephants. Southside Daily’s Adrienne Mayfield sat down with Maruyama to get a deeper understanding of what inspired the artwork and what she hopes to accomplish with the exhibit.

This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity.

Adrienne Mayfield: We’ve talked a little bit about your exhibit. Will you take it from the top, and tell me how you started advocating for elephants?

Wendy Maruyama: I started from reading all of the articles about the poaching. It’s such a horrific process, on top of that. They shoot or spear the elephants, and the elephants are still alive while they’re hacking their faces off to get the tusks, you know? Because they’re killing so many it’s disrupting the elephant hierarchy, the family.

They are matriarchal. (Poachers) go for the biggest elephants which are the oldest and the most experienced matriarch. So a lot of the herds are left with only juvenile females, females that may not have the same accumulated knowledge that the older matriarchs have. Things like finding water… They rely on the matriarch because for years they go to the same spot.

They are being killed at such a rapid rate that they could be extinct in 20 years, easily, if it keeps up. Ten percent of the population has already been killed since 2011. That’s a lot.

The demand for ivory has become an economic problem, too. People are poor and they see how much they can get for one elephant tusk.


AM: When did you go to Kenya?

WM: I went two years ago, and I started this body of work about six months before I went to Africa. Going to Africa gave me a better sense of what the animals are like out in the wild and not in the zoo. Don’t even get me started on zoos and circuses. That’s another thing I’ve been railing against myself.

AM: Were you fascinated by elephants before you visited Kenya?

WM: I was. I was more profoundly affected by the fact that this is happening. Elephants to me represent wildlife in general. They are the most iconic and the most recognizable. We’ve all seen what an elephant looks like. I think it’s unbelievable that such a large animal can be decimated by the human species.

AM: Tell me artistically the journey of how you created this.

WM: I wanted to figure out how can I make something very massive without the weight. Woodworking can be very cumbersome. If I built a whole elephant, it would be very clumsy and awkward. I wanted the piece to be lightweight. I’m 64 years old. I don’t need to be lugging around these heavy pieces of wood. I wanted to make these pieces more manageable for me to make on my own.

I used this technique called resaw… splitting wood, cutting them thin and stringing them together. It left a really nice mark or texture that looks like elephant skin. I thought it was really beautiful.

AM: I think it’s interesting how you connect (the elephants) with the string. How did that come to be?

WM: Well, I’m a craft person. I really love crafting and putting things together, whether it be wood, metal or string. I appropriated the technique of textiles. It kind of felt like a psychological release to feel like I’m trying to fix and mend a big problem, desperately sewing these pieces together to save the elephants.

AM: Can you tell me a little bit about the meaning behind the tusks in the Sarcophagus?

WM: Glass seemed like a logical medium to use to make those forms. They are so heavy, but so fragile. It kind of formed an analogy about the situation of the elephants. They are large and heavy but they are in a very fragile state.

I could have carved them out of wood, but it seems like glass is very precious and valuable… so I wanted to take advantage of that materiality that glass has that wood could not provide.

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Art and advocacy meet at elephant exhibit

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Adrienne Mayfield is an award-winning, multi-media journalist hailing from Clermont, Fla. She moved to Lynchburg, Va. on a whim when she was 19, and worked her way to Hampton Roads in 2013. Adrienne is passionate about telling people stories via covering public safety and the judicial system. She isn’t afraid to take a heads-on approach to covering crime, including knocking on doors to get the details police aren’t sharing. Adrienne is a 2014 Old Dominion University graduate who still lives within walking distance of the college. You may see her cruising around Downtown Norfolk on her bike, enjoying a sandwich from Grilled Cheese Bistro or playing fetch with her dog, Greta, at the Colonial Place dog park.