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To Whom It May Concern: An Investigation of the Art of Elephants by David Gucwa and James Ehmann (Norton: $14.95; 269 pp.)

February 23, 1986| Carolyn See

If you happen to produce very bad movies, please don't read this. If you produce good, very good ones, read this review at once, and pick up the phone before you leave the house. This story is too good to ignore, and--in the right hands--could be a film you'd see 20 times and beg for more. And it's true ; that's the jewel of it; it's true as diamonds.

The scene is an obscure, un-rich zoo in Syracuse, N. Y. It's wintertime; there's not a lot going on. A young elephant-handler, David Gucwa, notices that Siri, a young female Asian elephant, has been picking up pebbles with her trunk and scratching designs on the concrete floor of her pen. She's been doing it at night, for her own amusement. Gucwa--because hardly anyone comes to the zoo during a Syracuse winter--brings drawing pads and pencils to the zoo. He holds the pad and Siri draws: "Siri did most of the drawings in Gucwa's presence, though he did not teach her to draw, nor had he ever rewarded her for doing so. She drew only when she wanted to, using a pencil held in the curl of her trunk."

Then came what must have been a memorable meeting at that zoo. David Gucwa called the staff together and, using the rather dubious and whimsical title, "What I Did During My Winter Vacation," gave a showing of Siri's work. But--because if there is a God, He surely must dote on setting up skirmishes between the Good and the Bad, the Bright and the Dull--the director of the zoo, a certain David Raboy, was far from impressed by this show of drawings. As far as the director was concerned, Gucwa's "job was to feed the animal, to clean her enclosure and yard, to teach her tricks, to put on performances, and to oversee rides for a paying public, not to explore her intelligence or expressive desires." Gucwa was ordered to work "with pad and pencil only during his own time--coffee breaks and lunch breaks, for example."

At this point, a reporter, James Ehmann from the Syracuse Post-Standard happened by, to write a story on the expansion of the zoo. The director gave him an interview but conspicuously didn't mention Siri or her drawings. Then, some of the zoo staff (Were they outraged? Furious? Plotting? Gleeful? The narrator, in his strict journalistic practice, leaves out all mention of himself or his relationship with Gucwa) invited the reporter to a dinner party where they introduced Ehmann to Gucwa--and his portfolio.

So, early on in this story, the lines are drawn, so to say. Gucwa, the elephant handler, and Ehmann, the reporter, dazed by their discovery: Elephants (more particularly, female Asian elephants) draw . They draw enigmatic, often beautiful, designs. They may be thinking wonderful stuff inside their 13-pound brains. Isn't that amazing?

And, on the other side, from the very beginning, people like that zoo director: "Raboy disassociated his facility (from all information about Siri); he made it clear that the Burnet Park Zoo neither encouraged nor supported the graphic explorations." Ah, but after "the public's response made it clear that the work might be of some value after all . . . Onondaga County, New York--the county that employed David Raboy, operated the Syracuse Zoo and owned Siri the elephant--prepared to sue David Gucwa for ownership of the elephant art."

This is the love story of two men and an elephant. Very early in the story, David Gucwa was separated from Siri: The elephant was transferred to a zoo in Buffalo, and Gucwa himself was laid off--denied access to his 8,000-pound friend. But by then, Gucwa, the elephant handler, and James Ehmann, the reporter, had formed their alliance. They still had the drawings, and they decided--on what was almost a hit-or-miss basis--to send them around for comment.

"To Whom It May Concern" was what they named one of Siri's most effective drawings of pebble-on-concrete. And Ehmann, gropingly eloquent in his effort to grasp what he and Gucwa had got hold of, speculates, "Even as man shoots radio signals and probes, carrying gold-etched images, into deep space for the edification of whomever might stumble across them, perhaps, in the floor drawings, the elephant was purposefully exposing her intelligence, her imagination, to whomever might care to take note. Viewed in such light, the title we offer becomes as personal a communication for the reader as it is for me, and as it was for David Gucwa. Anyone who had read this far is, like Gucwa, to whom it may concern."

Ehmann, then, artfully chronicles a series of events that center on the two men sending out these drawings to various agencies and experts. The Museum of Modern Art's spokesman remarks that they're all "speechless," and won't take any more phone calls. But an expert on children's art says that's not art by a child, it's far too sophisticated. And yet another guesses that the "person" who's drawing is female, and Asian. . . .

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