Artist Mirka Mora at the zoo with the inspiration for her painted sculpture of Mali.

Artist Mirka Mora at the zoo with the inspiration for her painted sculpture of Mali. Photo: Danni Knox

SHE doesn't move as quickly nowadays, so the staff at Melbourne Zoo thought it best Mirka Mora entered the elephant enclosure in a zippy little buggy.

The 84-year-old Melbourne artist was to meet the zoo's first-born Asian elephant, the two-year-old calf Mali, the focus of her recent artwork.

Mora dressed for the occasion in a sheer top and was greeted by the elephant with a trunk to the breast.

Mora's painted sculpture of Mali.

Mora's painted sculpture of Mali.

''No brassiere because I detest brassieres," she said.

She was one of 50 Melbourne artists to decorate life-size fibreglass sculptures of the elephant calf as part of the zoo's 150th birthday celebrations this year.

Mora said her love of elephants went back to 1951 when she first moved to Melbourne from Paris with her husband Georges.

She remembers riding on the back of an elephant was the norm when she and friends first visited the zoo, although she did not agree with the practice.

Two children are painted on each side of Mora's elephant sculpture, with foliage climbing up the legs in her signature style. What was expected to take three days turned into an intensive two-week labour of love.

"I became like an animal. I put the soul of Mali, the elephant I met at the zoo, I put his soul into the sculpture," she said.

After two weeks, Mora's inanimate sculpture had been imbued with a spirit.

The departure of the sculpture from her Richmond studio was a torturous ordeal for the artist.

"I think there were five men who picked it up and put it in a truck and lay the elephant on his side carefully as if it were alive,'' she said.

''And I was crying and crying, it was so embarrassing. I said, 'this is abnormal, Mirka Mora, take control of yourself'."

Mora's sculpture will join 50 others that will be displayed around the city from mid-August for six weeks, before returning to the zoo for another month.

Other artists who have decorated the sculptures include David Bromley, who is the project's patron, and David Higgins, who has worked at the zoo for several years as its resident artist.

At the end of the year, the sculptures will be auctioned with all proceeds going towards conservation work at the zoo.