Saving Elephants with Art

  • Written by  Stephanie Allen
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Tidewater Women’s Stephanie Allen sat down with California-based artist, educator, and furniture maker Wendy Maruyama at the site of her latest exhibition, The WildLIFE Project, currently on display at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk.

Tidewater Women: Your degree is in furniture making. Did you always know that you wanted to use your skills for art?
Wendy Maruyama: Yes. I think because I’m hearing impaired, at a really early age I was more of a visual person, so that kind of compensates for my hearing loss in a way. Making my artwork was a way to communicate to people through the world rather than trying to say it. I just got into woodworking because back in the 70s it was always considered to be men’s work, so I was challenged by the idea of learning how to make furniture and trying to penetrate that men’s world. And then I realized, anybody can do woodwork! I don’t know why they make it to be such a big deal.

TW: What prompted you to get involved in environmental and social issues?
WM: It started with another body of work that I made about eight years ago called Executive Order 9066, which is when Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. It’s part of my family history, so I really wanted to do a body of work that kind of narrated that period because so few people know the scale of how many people were affected by this executive order. So that got me realizing that furniture could communicate in a way that I didn’t expect to see happen. I think part of the fact is that furniture is a domestic object; it goes in the home. Most of my work is in cabinet form, so you’d see a cabinet but when you open it up, it would reveal a completely unexpected story. I was trying to create a dialogue between the person who opened the piece of furniture and then see what’s inside that piece and perhaps learning something from that.

TW: What is the biggest challenge in making artworks like the 12-foot-tall elephant sculpture Satao?
WM: That was a big challenge because I wanted to make them big. I’m 64 years old, so lifting heavy objects is more of a challenge. But then I decided to cut these into very thin pieces of wood, and then using “women’s work,” I stitched them together so I was able to create a very lightweight but three-dimensional form. So this is something that I can manage very easily without needing any kind of help. If I had made that like a piece of furniture, it would have been more complicated and heavy and bulky. Also the process of stitching them was sort of like a psychological attempt to fix a problem, which is the problem of poaching. With every stitch I kept thinking, what can people do to stop these elephants from being killed?

TW: It also makes them seem so delicate, which is funny because elephants are so big!
WM: For such large animals, they’ve become extremely vulnerable. That’s one of the reasons why I chose glass for the tusks in the sarcophagus. There’s this perception that glass is very valuable, and ivory is valuable. So the glass became an important medium to use for this project.

TW: It seems like we’re not making enough progress in stopping the poaching. What information are we missing to help the problem?
WM: I think [it’s] the lack of knowledge. Many people think that tusks are like teeth. They fall out and they grow back. That’s not the case. The elephant has to be killed, and their faces hacked off to get the tusks. I think that needs to be known by the general public. It’s also the so-called idea that the rhinoceros horn has strong medicinal value when, in fact, it’s just keratin, which is what is in your fingernails. So like the elephant, the rhino has to be killed to collect the horn. They die for nothing.

TW: I was always taught that poaching was an issue, but was never taught what we could do about it.
WM: Right now they need financial support more than anything because they need to put more men on the ground in Africa. The poachers are being armed by terrorists because the terrorists sell the ivory and use the money to fund their mission. A whole herd of elephants are killed by people flying a helicopter and using an AK47 to just kill them all. I’ve located five major advocacy groups that are legitimate and my hopes are that people will check out my website and look at the websites of those groups.

TW: What kind of responses have you received from viewers of your work?
WM: Just in a few days here I have gotten tears. I’ve gotten people asking where can they send money. People say thank you for letting us know. Also I think people appreciate the use of the material to convey the idea of it, and hopefully they can understand craftsmanship and the making of the object is important, too. You can make an object out of glass, but it’d be really nice if the glass could tell a story.

TW: Well I think you’re doing wonderful work, and I’m so glad that this exhibition is going to be here until January!
WM: Thank you!

For more information, visit

Wendy Maruyama, The WildLIFE Project is on view through January 15, 2017 at Chrysler Museum of Art, One Memorial Place, Norfolk. For more information, please call 757-664-6200 or visit

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