For two months, artist Clara Dutton worked on a three-paneled image of a creature she loves — the elephant. She often wept as she painted. The art — 10 feet wide and 7 feet tall — is garish. The fallen animal in the central panel has been decapitated; on each side panel is a life-sized likeness of a bloody, severed tusk.
Dutton, 23, a soft-spoken postbaccalaureate student at Baylor University, fell in love with elephants during a May 2008 visit to a Laos elephant sanctuary. Through her oil-on-canvas painting “The Harvest,” she hopes to call attention to the increase in elephant poaching and the flourishing illegal ivory trade.
“I’m a Christian, and I’m an artist, and my faith influences what I do,” Dutton said. “Our responsibility to this planet is taking care of it, but we’ve fallen out of that.
“The people who are doing this are not moral,” she said. “They want every penny they can get. They kill the elephant and take its face off. Some hunters who use snare wire don’t check for a month, and an animal will either bleed or starve. Elephants mourn; they bury their dead with tree branches.
“This is destruction. It’s a gruesome harvest.”
“The Harvest,” shown in a recent faculty and student art exhibition at Baylor, is ironic as well as graphic, said Dutton, who earned her bachelor of fine arts degree in studio art in May.
On the artwork’s lower margin, Dutton painted three small white profiles of elephants, symbolic of carved ivory figurines.
“What’s ironic is that the ivory is used to make things for tourists, who buy it as a little gift and say, ‘Oh, I love elephants,'” she said.
As she created the painting, “I cried a lot,” said Dutton, who is considering a medical or veterinary career. “I had to stop sometimes. It really got hard. I couldn’t do too much, because I had to return to more innocent and happy images. But I felt it would be unjust and dishonest not to do this.”
In the academic world, the theme of animals and religion is grabbing an increasing amount of attention:
* At Baylor University this fall, a multi-disciplinary learning group of students, led by faculty members in environmental science and music, will study animals and religion as well as animals and ethics and animals and culture, using multi-media outlets and taking part in social-service projects related to animals.
* At Harvard University, a course on animals and religion is being taught this summer, with one of the instructors Dr. Paul Waldau, president of the Religion and Animals Institute and Barker Lecturer in Animal Law at Harvard Law School.
* At Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, classes about animals and religion have become popular in recent years. They are taught by Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster, a professor of religion and environmental studies and author of The Friends We Keep — Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals, to be released in October by Baylor University Press.
* At California State University in Chico, Calif., a seminar on religion and animals will be taught in spring 2011 by faculty members in the department of religious studies and the department of philosophy.
Animal studies is a quickly growing discipline, in part because of new research on animal emotions, increasing concerns about animal rights and a need for better understanding of the relationship between humans and non-human animals, scholars say.
One of the professors who will lead students in the multi-disciplinary learning group at Baylor is Dr. Susan Bratton, professor and chair of environmental science in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Bratton, author of Environmental Values in Christian Art, said that while many Roman works of art depicted hunting scenes — men killing lions or chasing wild boar — early Christian art is “very animal-friendly, very peaceful relations — except for Jonah being swallowed by the whale or sea monster. You see that in some of the catacombs.”
Some early Christian monks who lived in desert caves allowed lions and wolves to drink from nearby springs, and “the Celtic saints protected birds and sometimes deer and boars,” Bratton said. “There are stories about Celtic saints dying and birds being silent to mourn.”
Images of Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, abound. Less well known is Saint Kevin. According to tradition, a bird nested in his hand as prayed, and he did not move his hand until the nestlings hatched, Bratton said.
“Sometimes, these stories are about other things, like loyalty and repentance,” she said. “The idea is if animals can figure out how to live, why can’t humans? There are messages about animal protection but also human values. And even if there isn’t an overt Christian theme, there is one of ethical respect for creation.”