Chimp Artists Make a Colorful Splash in a Louisiana Art Exhibit
As an artist, Gay believes that less is more. Her minimalist paintings are often made up of small, bright dabs of color. When she finishes a piece, she is just as meticulous about cleaning her brushes. Her friend Brent is her opposite. He prefers to fill his canvas with a palate of primarily blues and greens, which he blends with his tongue! He finds clean-up time quite delicious.
Gay, 42, and Brent, 33, are chimpanzees and residents of Chimp Haven in Keithville, La. Along with six other chimp artists, they have contributed their paintings to INSTINCT: The Art of Chimpanzees, an exhibition which makes its debut Aug. 20 at the Barnwell Garden and Art Center in nearby Shreveport. After a one-month stay, the exhibition will move to New Orleans before beginning a national tour in 2010.
"Most people don't realize how similar chimpanzees are to us," explains Dr. Linda Brent, president and director of Chimp Haven, which is home to 128 chimps who have been retired from entertainment jobs, biomedical research or who are no longer wanted as pets. "Some enjoy painting, some don't. For the ones who like it, we use drawing and painting to give them some fun and stimulation."
The Chimp Haven artists who enjoy painting as an optional behavioral enrichment activity really have a passion for it, like Brent. "Brent just learned to paint over the past year," explains Dr. Brent, who has a soft spot for the chimp because they share the same name coincidentally. "At first, he just wanted to eat the paint and it was hard to get him to stop." But eventually, the ape realized that paint could be useful for more than just a snack. His unique way of blending paint on a canvas creates a stunning watercolor effect. "First he applies the paint to his tongue – it's non-toxic, of course –and then he licks it on to the canvas."
Brent's buddy, Les, 32, is also unconventional about his artwork. "The interesting thing about chimps is that they aren't confined by using only appropriate media," says Dr. Brent. "Les will only paint with a feather duster but he turns out very beautiful art."
The organizers hope that the show will not only provide insight into the creative similarities between chimps and humans but also introduce the public to the work being done at Chimp Haven, located on 200 acres of forestland in northern Louisiana. At the refuge, where half of the chimps are over 30 years old, they are given a chance to live in social groups, as they would in the wild, and receive long-term medical care.
Many of the chimps, who can live to be 60, have special heath needs because they were infected with the HIV virus or hepatitis during their experience as medical research subjects. "After they have spent time in research – which can be a very short period of their lives – there is a need for chimps to retire to some place where they can live out the rest of their lives comfortably," says Dr. Brent. "They deserve that."
Click on the video above to watch Henry the chimpanzee paint a masterpiece at Chimp Haven!
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