How and Why We Built a Lifesize Purple Elephant

The PGAVia Team Tusk Elphie puppet on parade at St. Louis Mardi Gras with PGAV staffers

How and Why We Built a Lifesize Purple Elephant


 – By Amanda Yates, lead designer, brand experience


Hours before the parade, at the end of a dark corridor on the 21st floor of St. Louis Place, six members of Team Tusk stare at the half-built elephant rib cage. No matter how much we push and pull, the conduit ribs won’t attach to the wooden chassis. This is our first time assembling all pieces of the 10-foot-tall elephant, and everything’s at stake: will our structure hold? Will it be too top heavy? Will the dollies work, or will the spine snap in half? Will it even look like an elephant? Would we be the laughingstock of Mardi Gras and St. Louis and the entire purple-elephant-building industry? We didn’t know until we put everything together.

What does any of this have to do with Mardi Gras?

We decided to create a life-size elephant puppet for the St. Louis Mardi Gras Parade as part of our PGAVIA campaign to bring awareness to elephant conservation. While the parade is an atypical environment for such a serious cause and message, it also presented a great opportunity to reach a lot of people in our community and raise awareness locally. We wanted to celebrate the vibrancy and life of elephants while calling attention to the serious issues that they face due to poaching and the ivory trade.

Our final concept. Note the Team Tusk name and jerseys to fit in with this year’s Mardi Gras theme of “Sports.”
Our final concept. Note the Team Tusk name and jerseys to fit in with this year’s Mardi Gras theme of “Sports.”

As you can see, the giant elephant puppet was just one aspect of a larger concept that also involved layers of messaging, elephant-hat-wearing, and vuvuzela-trumpeting parade walker — but it was the largest and most visible component, and also the most complicated.

It’s Just Building a Giant Purple Elephant, How Hard Can it Be?

At PGAV, building giant models of animals to support causes in our community was nothing new. In fact, we were consistently voted the crowd favorite at the Girl Scout Cookie Construction Contest at the Galleria for seven years running, and in the year 2000, we built a pole-vaulting elephant.

PGAV’s winning Girl Scout Cookie Construction in 2000, mid-assembly on the left and completed on the right. Legend has it that on certain days, you can still smell the unmistakable aroma of belt-sanded, hot-glue-melted Thin Mints wafting through the office.

Beyond our expertise in giant animal model-making, we at PGAV are used to delivering successful, strategic projects on time and on budget. In many regards, this project was no different; we still went through the typical project stages of Master Planning, Concept, Design Development, and Construction. But in addition to our typical design roles, we were also playing the roles of client and contractor, meaning we had to trust each other to execute subjective, important decisions. Should we carry the elephant on our hips for the entire parade route? No way, let’s put it on wheels. Should the trunk be purple and sparkly? Yes, yes it should.

On the left, Teague’s schematic design of the structure before we decided to use conduit ribs and a dolly-based transport system. At this time, we also picked our fabric due to long lead times for ordering approximately 40 linear yards of the stuff.

The demanding four-week build schedule forced us to work efficiently; whenever we found ourselves arguing about the elephant’s overall height or a particular way to build the leg, we’d sketch it out or build a mock-up.

Photos from the first official build day, clockwise from left: Joe checks supply items off the list, Teague builds the spine (with Jayvn, Gene, and Tom, not pictured), Victoria and Jess cut and assemble the first layer of the head.

We used Google Docs to manage our shopping list, to-do list, budget, and our work day calendar. We rallied the troops at PGAV, asking for extra hands after work or on the weekends, and music and donuts became our fuel and motivating tools.

Maura and Andrew cut boards to layer onto the cardboard base of the head, while Teague works on the ribs and Victoria reinforces the head.

We divided and conquered: one group would be building the spine while another built the head and yet another worked on the fabric. We printed out a huge task list and assigned it with abandon.

Joe and Andrew build legs while Teague, Victoria and Ankit work on the body. Jess paints the papier-mâchéd head. Rosey, Stacey, and Lydia cut and sew fabric for the body.

By the last week, we were really picking up speed.

Leg assembly.
Fabric tests and final touches to the head and tusks.

After features on local TV (FOX 2) and radio (KMOX), people began emailing the parade organizers to ask about how they could help the elephants. In the final days, the model shop took on the fever pitch of a college studio the night before thesis. We were overjoyed with our progress, but we still hadn’t put the whole thing together.

The head, complete with aforementioned sparkly trunk.

The Final Test

Back on the 21st floor that night, we tried everything to get the ribs to work, all to no avail. Finally, we tried loosening all bolts that were mechanically (over-)tightened the night before, and this allowed us to attach nearly all ribs. We held the rib cage tight as two holes were drilled, and cheered when the the last bolt slid into place. We threw on the fabric, attached the legs, hoisted everything up on the dollies, and we had ourselves an elephant!

Sweet, sweet success.

With Teague wearing the repurposed hiking backpack frame that supported the 55-lb head.

With Teague wearing the repurposed hiking backpack frame that supported the 55-lb head.

The Parade

Elphie, as we came to call her, arrived in multiple pieces to the parade area and was assembled and ready to go by 8 a.m., accompanied by her 30 closest friends, Team Tusk. Here she is taking her first tour around the parking lot.

We knew that getting our message across during the excitement of the parade would be difficult, but we came prepared. Cheering and vuvuzela-ing to the beat of a bike DJ (thanks, Andrew Warshauer!), we walked behind a giant banner announcing our campaign. Through sandwich boards, van graphics, and messages attached to each of our 19,000 strands of beads, we encouraged the taking of #elphies and the signing of an online petition to ban the sale of illegal ivory in the US.

Photographer Gregg Goldman joined us and captured the below moments (thanks, Gregg!).

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Elphie loved the crowd, and the crowd loved her back:


The Impact

After the parade, while celebrating with our friends at the Anheuser-Busch Biergarten, we were delighted to see that many revelers used our #Elphie hashtag in support of the cause on Twitter and Instagram:

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We were also honored to have been featured on the front page of a section of Sunday’s Post Dispatch:

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We hope that Elphie can continue to act as an ambassador of elephant conservation, and are looking into more events this year where she can keep making an impact.

A big thanks to everyone who helped make Elphie a reality!

Can’t wait to see what next year brings.

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