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Leap and the Bridge will Appear- The Genesis of Arte for Elephants

Painting elephants at our booth!

“How did you get into this?”

This is the most frequent question visitors to our art booth ask of us. It seems everyone wants to know. I have my own theories about why people are so intrigued with our story. Maybe the idea of devoting your lives to such a narrow focus (captive elephant well being) fascinates people or perhaps our visitors nurture a secret desire to pursue their dreams in their hearts and want to know how and why we were able to “take the plunge”, quit our day jobs and devote our lives to our passions.

Arte for Elephants would never have existed without two very important women, neither of whom I have ever met, Betsie Norris and Maureen Olsen.

Betsie is an amazing adoption activist in Ohio and Maureen was my birth mother.

I am a foster child. I was given up at birth by a woman named Maureen and adopted by two people who clearly loved me, but with whom I had hardly anything in common. Neither my adopted mother or father was what you would describe as “artistic”, They loved theater but were more at home on the technical side of the stage. From a very young age I was feverishly driven to create. I made little books out of Sunday comic strips, wrote reviews of movies and drew pictures to illustrate them, and in a pastime guaranteed to send my adopted mother into fits of rage, I routinely “borrowed” household items to create imaginative sculptures and dioramas. My suffering adoptive parents had no idea how to handle this behavior and let me know in no uncertain terms that art was NOT a viable career.

I can’t speak to how other adoptees feel about their unique attributes, but I always felt that the artistic feelings that are deeply imbedded in me were something to be fought; they weren’t normal or practical, they weren’t even good.

Fast forward to 2015. A painful divorce and years of soul killing, corporate ladder climbing behind me, and I heard about this amazing activist (Betsie Norris) in Ohio, (where I was born), who was on the brink of opening the adoption records for tens of thousands of people born between 1964 and 1996, whose birth certificates were sealed by the state.

My biological mother and I

Opening my original birth certificate was the most heart stopping, surreal experience. I tore away the envelope, and there in black and white was the name of the person who had given me life, Maureen Virginia Olsen. I fell on the floor sobbing. With the help of a superhuman Search Angel (someone who volunteers their time looking up records to help reunite adoptees and birth families), within 10 hours of reading that name I learned that my birth mother had passed away but there were half siblings and they wanted to meet.

This isn’t enough space here to cover the emotional rollercoaster that ensued with this reconnection. Ultimately what emerged is that my birth mother Maureen was not only an amazing woman, but she had been one dynamite artist! And what did Maureen draw? Animals, my birth mother drew animals!

Within two days of receiving this information, still in a state of dizzy bewilderment, I sat down on the sofa to sort through my feelings and decided to try my hand a drawing an animal (I hadn

’t picked up my sketch book since my stint at Otis College of Art 20 years earlier). On a whim, with no other thought in my head but to honor the memory of the gifted artist that had given birth to me, I drew the first animal I could think of, an elephant!

And BOY did that elephant turn out great! Not only that but it just felt good and right to do it. I took this drawing to work and it was so good someone asked if they could buy it! I drew another one and another. Eventually one of my colleagues asked me what I was going to do with all of these elephant drawings. Without giving it a second thought I said firmly, “I am going to spend the rest of my life saving elephants!”

Where the heck had that come from?

It was almost as if the wings of some great, spiritual bird had scooped me up and carried me away, and once the words were out of my mouth there wasn’t a doubt in my head that this was exactly what I was going to do.

Have there been ups and downs? Heck yes! But for the first time in my entire life I feel that what I want to do and what I should do are in alignment. Drawing elephants is normal, practical and really, really good.

None of this would have been possible without Betsie and her coalition taking action to open up the records and I would never have had the courage to take this leap of faith had not my birthmothers passion and talent validated my own inner artistic dreams. Finally, it was OK to be me. I was, quite literally, born to it.

Now if that isn’t a leap of faith, I don’t know what is. (Photo courtesy of Global Sanctuary for Elephants- Poocha and Guillermina waiting for their trip to Sanctuary)

Special thanks to Betsie Norris and the Adoption Network Cleveland

Awaiting Rescue Poocha and Guillermina- Mother and Daughter in the Mendoza Zoo

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