© Copyright 2005
Chimpanzees as Artists
. . Apes are capable of painting beautiful and moving works, admits art critic Waldemar Januszczak: October 08, 2005
CAN a monkey paint a good picture? It's a question that has come up a few times during my tenure as an art critic, as a result of various modern art jokes, scams, cons and the like.
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. . .Composition. . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . .. . Bold Circular Loop
. . Normally, I would waste no time on the issue. It is, or was, my firmly held view that, in the field of art, monkeys do whatever they do by accident or coercion. Monkeys cannot paint.
. . Then along comes a fascinating and slightly worrying exhibition at London's Mayor Gallery, Ape Artists of the 1950s, and I am no longer so certain. In particular, along comes the artistic work of a talented chimpanzee named Congo.
. . Having carefully examined Congo's paintings, all of which might best be described as examples of lyrical abstract expressionism, I find myself assailed by doubts. I like Congo's paintings. A couple of them I love.
. . I am less sure of the output of the show's gorilla. And not much taken with the orangutan's pictures, either. But in all their cases, something of interest is undoubtedly being attempted, and for the whole show the feeling persists that the lessons being taught here pertain not only to monkeys, but also to us.
. . Congo was born in 1954 and produced about 400 paintings from the age of two to four. He died of tuberculosis in 1964. He appeared on television in the late 1950s, the star turn on Zootime, an animal magazine show presented live from London Zoo by animal behaviouralist and The Naked Ape author Desmond Morris.
. . Apparently, the experiments with Congo began by accident. One day, he picked up a pencil and drew a line. Then he drew more, until it was clear to Morris that the chimp's actions were deliberate.
. . After a short drawing phase, it was decided to move him on to painting. Morris had a baby's highchair and tray adapted to create a seating arrangement at which Congo could work.
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Congo. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . .. . . .. . .. . . . .. . Composition
. . There are photographs of Congo in action, in which particular attention is drawn to the grip with which he held the brush. It's similar to the way you or I might hold a pen, and was absolutely Congo's invention, apparently. If so, that is already a remarkable development.
. . Congo would be given a piece of paper and, in conditions of considerable concentration, would begin painting. The choice of colours was his, red being a particular favourite, blue being a colour he disliked.
. . Fascinatingly, if you tried to take a picture away from Congo before he had finished with it, he would scream and throw fits. However, if he considered the picture done, no amount of cajoling would persuade him to continue. The master's work was complete. That was that.
. . The results have been placed in functional wooden frames and hung in a line in the no-frills exhibition box of the Mayor Gallery. The exhibition comes on the heels of a recent auction of some of Congo's works in London, at which an American collector paid $US25,000 ($33,000) for one painting, 20 times the expected price.
. . But not even the Mayor Gallery's charmless presentation can dim the disquieting beauty of Congo's best pictures. They shine off the walls like stained glass.
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Composition. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . .. . . . . . . .. . Composition
. . There's a cracker called Composition on White Card, painted on August 17, 1958, which is dramatically, even shockingly, sparse.
. . An audacious pink splodge at the centre plays a delicate game of tag across the paper with a couple of different blues. That's it. And it really works. For Congo to have finished this picture as he finished it -- for a monkey to be this minimal -- is deeply disconcerting.
. . Composition on Buff Paper, painted on October 31, 1957, is perhaps Congo's masterpiece. Built compositionally around a central expanse of Congo's beloved crimson, it features an array of blacks and pale greens soaring around the red like vultures around a mountain. The mood is pure Kandinsky, the achievement profound. Not all of Congo's paintings get it as right. His range of painting gestures is narrow: the brush has a tendency to go round and round. He is as guilty as any monkey might be of overdoing things, and most of the paintings lack the specific character of the ones I have described. But the display never stops being remarkable.
. . What is really spooky is the care Congo always brings to working within the paper. Only rarely does the brush stray over the edge. And he clearly understands the notion of balance, too. If a pink has a blue on one side of it, and needs another blue on the other side, he will add one. The absence of muddiness, of colours mixed to sludge through mindless scrubbing, is also spectacular. When it comes to pigments, Congo is a purist.
. . So much so that there is some small room for doubt about the role played by Morris. It seems that although the paintings were made for Zootime Congo was not often filmed painting them, because the studio activity put him off. Morris's experiments were mostly conducted off camera, which is a shame.
. . Not for a moment do I question the authenticity of the images, or the methods used to produce them, but it would have been interesting to see the extent of Morris's involvement in important aesthetic matters such as the choice of coloured paper for Congo to work on. This use of red, orange, green paper has a considerable decorative impact on the final image. Congo may have selected the colours, but who came up with the original wheeze of using impactful coloured paper? How much guidance was Congo receiving?
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Composition. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . .. . . .. . . . . . . .. . Composition
. . I ask only because this intriguing show could profitably have been bigger, fuller, packed with more information.
. . I read, too, that Pablo Picasso was a collector of Congo's work. This does not surprise me. The notion of a painting monkey would have appealed to the devil in him. What's more, Congo, as an ape, could not reasonably have mounted any sort of challenge to the ultra-competitive Picasso's self-esteem.
. . Morris tells an excellent story of a journalist asking Picasso his opinion of Congo's work. Picasso left the room and returned, his arms swinging like an ape's and clutching his Congo painting, then jumped on the journalist and bit him. Artists and monkeys are brothers in arms, seemed to be the message.
. . On a similar tack, Salvador Dali is said to have quipped: "The hand of the chimpanzee is quasi-human; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal."
. . Apart from Congo, there are works on show by Betsy, another chimpanzee, a gorilla named Sophie and Alexander the orangutan. With so few examples included, it is difficult to come to any worthwhile conclusions about these other simian maestros, though certainly it is surprising to see how fragile and even nervous are the touches of the huge gorilla.
. . Morris has attempted to give the display a truly gigantic story line by insisting on the importance of ape art to our general understanding of the aesthetic impulse. "It is the work of these apes, not that of prehistoric cave artists," he writes, "that can truly be said to represent the birth of art."
. . If that were so, then this would count as one of the most important exhibitions anyone has put on. I am moved to see it the other way round, from the point of view of the visitor, not the creator: confronted by a pleasing assortment of abstract shapes, we humans have a wondrous ability to find meaning in them and to gain pleasure from them. Art, after all, is only as important as its audience.
Ape Artists of the 1950s is at the Mayor Gallery in London until Friday.
Waldemar Januszczak is art critic for The Sunday Times in London and author of Techniques of the World's Great Painters.
Congo the chimp climbs back into the art world
By John Russell Taylor: The Times, October 12, 2005
UNDOUBTEDLY, 1957 was the annus mirabilis for the artist known simply as Congo. He suddenly found himself the star attraction in a big West End show and, in consequence, was endlessly written about, photographed and generally lionized. But instant fame of that kind is frequently followed by an equally instant return to oblivion - think of the famous-for-15 minutes New York graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat - and so it was with Congo.
. . When three of his paintings came up at auction in June this year, Bonhams' estimate for the group was a mere £800. But just as Basquiat, after his death, made a notable return to collecting favour, so Congo confounded sceptics: the lot sold for £12,000.
. . What Congo made of this revival in his reputation we do not know. We do not know even if he is still with us. It does emerge from a new show at the Mayor Gallery, devoted mainly to his work, that his most creative phase lasted only a few months, after which he got bored with the process of painting and spoilt a succession of works before refusing to paint and returning to non-artistic activity in his cage at London Zoo. He presumably knew what he was doing, for Congo was the most famous and fêted of the chimpanzees encouraged to paint by the artist and animal expert Desmond Morris.
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Fan Pattern. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . .. . . .. . . . . . . .. . Fan Pattern
. . Encouraged is perhaps not the right word: "enabled" would be more appropriate. Morris insists that he merely provided Congo with drawing materials and left him to draw. At first his favourite design was a radiating fan, but once he had got used to this he began to vary it by splitting, reversing, curving, doubling and stippling. He always kept within the confines of the paper, and had definite ideas of when the work was finished.
. . Subsequently he was given coloured paints, and soon reached complete mastery over this medium too. In three years he produced about 400 drawings and paintings before retreating definitively into silence.
. . At the time of the 1957 ICA exhibition, examples of Congo's work were acquired by Picasso, Miró, Roland Penrose, Herbert Read, Sidney Bernstein and the Duke of Edinburgh. Morris insists that he did not influence Congo in any way, did not even offer him rewards for painting. But it is remarkable how in tune with the Abstract Expressionist tone of the times the work of Congo, and the three other great apes represented in the show, seems to us now. How would a chimpanzee or a gorilla offered the opportunity today paint or draw? Or would they confine themselves to installation?
Ape Artists of the 1950s is at the Mayor Gallery, W1 (020 7734 3558), until October 14.
Art world goes wild for chimpanzee's paintings as Warhol work flops
By Nigel Reynolds, Arts Correspondent
. . The art world, confusing at the best of times, took another right-angled lurch at Bonhams auction house yesterday.
. . Amid wild scenes, three paintings by a chimpanzee were sold for £14,400, more than 20 times their estimate.
. . In the same sale an Andy Warhol painting and a small Renoir sculpture attracted so little interest that they had to be withdrawn.
. . The chimp daubings are believed to be the first works of art by a non-human to go under the hammer. But they were executed by no ordinary chimp. They were painted in the late 1950s by Congo, a celebrity chimp resident in London Zoo who was hailed as the Cezanne of the ape world.
. . Picasso acquired one of Congo's 400 works, Miro swapped two of his paintings for one of Congo's, and Salvador Dali was so smitten with the ape's canvases that he declared: ''The hand of the chimpanzee is quasihuman; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal!"
. . Bidding for Congo's three works together started at £1,000 - they had originally been given an estimated sale price of £600-£800 separately - and ended with two telephone bidders slogging it out.
. . Victory went to Howard Hong, a private collector in Los Angeles who described himself as an enthusiast of modern and contemporary painting. He immediately issued a statement that could have come from the Dali phrasebook, saying that Congo's painting "represents the complete evolution of mankind".
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. . A Bonham's spokesman said: "It was quite an historic moment and it was fantastically exciting.
. . "People seem to see these paintings as the truest form of creativity."
. . Howard Rutkowski, a Bonhams director, said: "I don't think anybody else has been crazy enough to do this. I'm sure other auction houses think this is completely mad."
. . Congo became a television celebrity in the late 1950s as the star of Zootime, an animal programme presented from London Zoo by Desmond Morris, the zoologist and anthropologist.
. . He became even more of a cause célèbre when the Institute of Contemporary Arts mounted a large exhibition of his work in 1957. Critics had a field day and debate about the meaning of art raged furiously.
Morris's experiments with Congo, an exceptionally intelligent chimp, began when the zoologist offered him a pencil.
. . He explained recently: "He took it [the pencil] and I placed a piece of card in front of him. This is how I recorded it at the time, 'something strange was coming out of the end of the pencil. It was Congo's first line. It wandered a short way and then stopped. Would it happen again? Yes, it did, and again and again.' "
. . The zoologist soon noticed that Congo could draw a circle and had a basic sense of composition: when Morris drew a shape on one half of a piece of paper Congo would make marks on the other half to balance the structure. Later, the chimp took to paints. He never managed to make a recognizable pictorial image but his favourite design was a sort of radiating fan pattern.
. . Morris recorded: "It was truly art for art's sake. Congo became increasingly obsessed with his regular painting sessions. If I tried to stop him before he had finished a painting, he would have a screaming fit.
. . "And if I tried to persuade him to go on painting after he considered that he had finished a picture, he would stubbornly refuse."
. . Congo died in 1964 of tuberculosis at the age of 10.
Ape Artists of the 1950's Biografie
. . I began my research into the origins of aesthetics in 1956 with Congo. Over a three-year period he produced about 400 drawings and paintings. With the drawings I was able to prove that the chimpanzee brain is capable of creating abstract patterns that are under visual control. To put it simply, the position of one line influenced the position of the next line, and so on, until the drawing was considered (by the ape) to be finished. If I placed geometric patterns on the paper, these altered the position of the animal's lines. In this way I was able to demonstrate that the chimp was able to balance a picture, left to right, and was able to develop a visual theme and then to vary that theme.
. . Congo's favourite design was a radiating fan pattern and once he had become familiar with this, he started to vary it, splitting it in two, reversing it, curving it, stippling it, and even adding a subsidiary fan. He kept his lines within the area of the paper and tried to avoid going over the edges. And he knew when a picture was finished, refusing to continue until a new sheet was offered to him.
. . He was never given any reward for his paintings. Even at the level of he chimpanzee brain, it was clearly 'art for art's sake', and attempts to stop him painting before a picture was complete led to temper tantrums and screaming fits. At the peak of his picture making, the intensity with which Congo concentrated on his work was astonishing.
. . At a certain point I allowed him to experiment with coloured paints. He enjoyed playing with these new 'toys' and at first his paintings contained too many accidental marks to be of any interest. But then, after tiring of the novelty of the paints, he suddenly started to concentrate with great intensity on what he was doing. I would hand him a paint-loaded brush and he would work with it a little, a lot, or perhaps reject it altogether. Then he would be offered another colour, and so on, until he considered the picture was finished.
. . Eventually he became bored by the regular painting sessions and started to obliterate the sheets of paper with large masses of paint, but before this final stage was reached, he did enjoy a period of several months during which every line or mark was placed exactly where he wanted it. There were about 70 paintings from this peak phase, and some examples were exhibited at the ICA in London in 1957. They created a sensation and examples were acquired by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Roland Penrose, Jock Whitney, William Copley, Julian Huxley, Herbert Read, Solly Zuckerman, Sidney Bernstein, Princess Zeid, Prince Philip and a number of other collectors.
. . Congo shared his exhibition at the ICA with an American Chimpanzee Betsy, who specialized in finger-painting. In 1958 their work was also exhibited in a traveling exhibition in the United States. A single painting by Betsy is included in the present exhibition.
. . A male Orangutan called Alexander, living at the London Zoo, was also offered paints, and working in a slow and deliberate manner he produced several pictures in 1957 that showed a markedly different pattern from those of Congo. Two of these paintings are included in the present exhibition.
. . In 1959 a female Gorilla called Sophie was offered paints by her keeper at the Rotterdam Zoo and she, too, became fascinated by the challenge of making abstract patterns and several of her works are also on show here. Despite her great size, her use of crayon and brush was remarkably delicate and controlled. (See more Gorilla Art)
Sophie - Composition
. . The importance of these works by Great Apes is that they help us to understand the very ancient preoccupation with pattern making that has been demonstrated by the human species all over the globe. They may only display the germ of an aesthetic impulse, but the fact that they display one at all is frankly amazing.
It is the work of these apes, not that of prehistoric cave artists, that can truly be said to represent the birth of art.
Copyright: Desmond Morris and Mayor Gallery, July 2005
Betsy, Aping the Abstractionists
Thursday, September 16, 2004; Page C05
. . You say your kid could do that? For once, you're right. There's little difference, developmentally speaking, between a 2-year-old rugrat and a full-grown chimpanzee. It's impossible to make any great claim for the finger paintings of Baltimore Zoo star Betsy the Chimp (1951-60) as art, but as a record of an uncomprehending public's anxiety over abstract expressionism, they're fascinating. It's pretty funny that folks felt so threatened by the likes of Pollock and de Kooning that a simian reaction erupted -- but it's pretty sad, too. A consolation: As American Dime Museum Director Dick Horne observes, Betsy's handler, who gave her colors and removed the paper before it became muddy, was essentially using the chimp as a brush. And that's rather avant-garde.
"Baltimore's Betsy, the Finger-Painting Chimp: A Retrospective of Her Work" at the American Dime Museum, 1808 Maryland Ave., Baltimore, Wednesday-Friday noon-3 p.m., Saturday-Sunday noon-5 p.m., 410-230-0263, ongoing.
The New York Daily News, Saturday, March 16, 1957 (p. 12)
Art for Chimp's Sake
Our Kokomo Jr. Scoffs at That Finger-Painting Gal in Baltimore
By PHIL SANTORA (Who interviews animals)
KOKOMO JR., or Kokomo Fils as he prefers to be called, was relaxing in his studio with an aperitif and a cigaret. There was a Left Bank air about his striped apache shirt and his gay beret but Kokomo was in anything but a jovial mood.
. . "Nom d'un nom!" he snarled, "all of a sudden everyone is interested in art."
. . We explained our mission. In Baltimore, the zoo boasts a 7-year-old chimp, Betsy, who is making money hand-over-paw by selling paintings. We had heard that Kokomo...
. . Kokomo sneered, showing even rows of yellow teeth. "It is to laugh," he said in the accent he brought here from French Equatorial Africa. "For years the great artists of the world have struggled to buy a crust of bread and a flask of wine and now a mere finger-painter, a dauber, seeks to join their illustrious company."
. . He leaned forward and snapped, "You know something of art?"
. . Well, we did see Faith Bacon a few times...
. . "No, no!" he interrupted. "I mean, do you know of Matisse and Picasso? Who are your favorite painters?"
Jan Vermeer and C. D. Batchelor primarily...
. . KOKOMO waved us to silence. He looked ceilingward and closed his eyes as though searching for patience. "You know of my work?" he asked.
. . We had heard he was a painter and we presumed his creations were on a par with Betsy's.
Kokomo Considers The Comparison Odious
. . "Sacre bleu!" he bellowed. "You dare compare me with a finger-painter? Only two days ago I did a chiaroscuro study called 'Evolution,' actually my impressions of Darwin, and sold it to a patron, one Norman Brook, of San Antonio, Tex., for $60.
. . "But it was brushwork, not finger-painting. It had depth and character. It was not the idle smear of a spinster chimpanzee."
. . We hastened to placate Kokomo. We had heard, we said, that he had dashed off a fine work of art in a matter of minutes on a TV show. How come, by the way, that he was a TV personality -- why didn't he devote more time to art?
. . He gave a gallic shrug and his features broke into a sheepish smile.
Shows One of His Works -- What It Looks Like
. . "I don't believe in starving in a garret," he said. "I am saving up for the day when I can leave the show in charge of an assistant and go off to Italy for serious study."
. . He whipped the cover off an easel and whispered, "Now, what would you say that is?"
. . We said it looked like an octopus battling a starfish in a bagful of excelsior.
. . "You would be drummed out of Mme. Albert's bar on the Place de L'Odeon for such heresy," he hissed savagely. You are a barbarian."
. . We said defensively that it wasn't something we'd expect to find on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel...
. . "It's in the Miro tradition, you fool," said Kokomo. "It's non-objective." He burst into a long harangue. Corot was too misty, he said. Rubens was fatuous. Monet was good in his way and Michelangelo was a perfectionist.
Modernist Puts the Old Masters in Their Place
. . "But we moderns have outstripped the old masters," he said rather pompously. "They were more or less photographers. Did you know, by the way, that I have been compared to Toulouse-Lautrec?"
. . WE had the impression that Toulouse-Lautrec was a shade taller and that he wore a derby, mustache and glasses...
. . "Artistically, not physically," said Kokomo testily, "but I digress. You came here to inquire about finger-painting. Well, finger-painting is for kids. It's a method of expression for the young. Perhaps this Betsy will develop into a true artist. Who knows?"
Expects Fame to Arrive After He Has Departed
. . Kokomo waved a hairy arm to encompass his studio. "One day," he predicted, "My works will hang in the Metropolitan along with Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Whistler and the rest. Perhaps I won't be here to hear the praise, for most painters achieve stature only after they're dead, but..."
. . You have a ways to go, Kokomo. How old are you now?
. . Kokomo tried to shrug off the question but finally he put his thumb in his mouth and whispered, "Eighteen months."
. . Too young for Betsy.
Kokomo Fils delivers an artistic critique on Baltimore's Betsy.
"Wonder if I could make the grade by cutting off an ear?"
"Working on detail is like filing an income tax."
"That agency sends me the craziest models."
"Here's my check! Garcon! Cognac for everyone!"
. . "Umbrellas don't have to be black," I insisted. "You sell every colour, you blaze cartoon characters across the fabric - you even commission famous artists to create unique patterns. But I bet you never had a designer who was a chimpanzee."
. . And so Geller's Apebrellas were born. Regular readers will know I'm fascinated by ape art at the moment - in fact, I have added to my collection this week, with a fabulous finger-painting by a chimp called Betsy and a colourful canvas by Alex the orangutan to hang beside my works by Congo the television chimp and Sophie the gorilla.
ANOTHER MOVIE STAR RETIRES TO PALM SPRINGS AND BECOMES A PAINTER. THIS ONE'S A CHIMP
. . For those of us old enough to remember the Tarzan movies, Cheeta is the chimp that made everybody want one of their own. The four foot, hundred and fifty pound primate was bursting with personality and charm. Animal trainer Tony Gentry found Cheeta on an animal scouting trip to Africa in the 1930's. Cheeta went on to star in twelve Tarzan films. He retired from films 1967 at the age of thirty five. Now, chimpanzees in the wild can live forty to forty-five years if they can avoid poachers, and perhaps into their mid fifties in captivity. Well, The Guinness Book of World Records lists Cheeta as the Worlds Oldest Chimp today, at the amazing age of 71. - Website.
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. . People have a different consciousness about animals and animal welfare today, and mercifully, more and more people are turning their backs on circuses that exploit animals, and performing animals in general. But this was a different era, and what's done is done. Often, when performing chimpanzees were retired, they were sold into biomedical research. Tony Gentry loved Cheeta so much, his will stated when he himself died, he wanted Cheeta put to sleep also so he would never suffer at the hands of others. Enter Tony's nephew, Dan Westfall. Dan promised to take good care of Cheeta, and when his uncle died about ten years ago, Cheeta went to live with Dan. Today, Dan's "Cheeta Primate Foundation" in Palm Springs , California , is home to Cheeta and many other retired chimps, orangutans, and other unwanted or abused showbiz primates. Abe Karajerjian, a biological anthropologist who along with Dan runs the foundation and cares for the animals, says Cheeta and his companions are in the best of health, receive the best of care, and are kept busy and happy in an appropriate social structure. Says Abe, "They made tons of people happy, they had to endure a lot to make people happy, and we want to give back to them, provide them with friends. We just love them."
CHEETA'S SIGNED ART (YES, HE SIGNS IT, SEE PHOTO) $125.00
. . Of course, some showbiz habits are hard to break. Cheetah likes to play the piano, watch t.v., go for rides in the car, take walks, look at pictures in magazines, and most importantly, paint. Abe says, "At the sanctuary the apes are provided with a variety of activities to stimulate their intellect and curiosity. Painting allows them to mimic their innate behavior of inventing and using tools.
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. . . . .Cheeta & Dan. . . . . . . . .. . . . .. . . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . Jane Goodall
. . Dan says that Cheeta has developed a particular talent as an abstract artist and has trademarked Cheeta's creations as "Ape-Stract Art". Cheeta uses a paintbrush and bright colors for his creations, which are full of sweeps and swirls, yet balanced and you might even say well thought out!
Overjoyed customer Elayne Boosler shows one of the paintings Cheeta made for her.
. . Says Elayne Boosler , "I read an article about Cheeta and his paintings online. I had to have one. It came a week later. I immediately bought another, and it was different. Different colors and mood. I was captivated. My neighbor, a graphic artist, saw the paintings and had to have one. I surprised her for her birthday and she was ecstatic. It's in a gorgeous frame in her living room and everyone comments on it. They do not believe it was painted by a chimp, and my neighbor always has to take the picture down and show them the Certificate of Authenticity on the back. I became friendly with Dan and Abe and so admire what they are valiantly doing on a shoestring budget. They are just two wonderful people. I hope putting them on the Tails website gets them a lot of notice and business".
EACH 14"X 18" CANVAS BOARD PAINTING COMES WITH A SIGNATURE (DAN HELPS), CHEETA'S THUMBPRINT (CHEETA DOES THAT HIMSELF), A CERTIFICATE OF AUTHENTICITY, A COLOR PHOTO OF CHEETA PAINTING, A SIGNED HEAD SHOT OF CHEETA FROM HIS MOVIE DAYS, AND A MOVIE STILL OF CHEETAH WITH TARZAN. THE PHOTOS WILL BE PERSONALIZED TO YOU OR ANYONE YOU WISH.
. . Most importantly, the money from the sale of the paintings goes to support the animals. It's pretty expensive feeding and caring for a dozen primates, and the money is so needed. The nice thing is, you get a beautiful piece of art AND you help save lives. And the holidays are just around the corner
To make a donation or to order a painting, click here on Cheeta's brand new official website, or contact: Dan Westfall Cheeta Primate Foundation PO Box 8162 Palm Springs , CA 92263
Retired from acting, star chimp loves to paint
The Desert Sun
April 2, 2005 April 2, 2005
. . He's been an actor, a world record holder, a circus performer, recipient of a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars and now a featured artist.
. . Not a bad life for a 72-year-old retired Palm Springs resident.
. . Even better considering his beginnings as an orphaned baby taken out of Liberia in the 1930s.
. . And he's not human.
. . Cheeta, one of the original chimpanzee actors in the "Tarzan" flicks and oldest ape on record, will hold his first-ever art show to show of his "ape-stract" paintings at Studio One Eleven in Palm Springs Sunday.
. . The retired star will be there to meet his public, take pictures with his fans and sell his autographed art pieces.
. . "It's his first show, but this is one of the capitals of the art world," says Dan Westfall, Cheeta's caretaker and the director of CHEETA, Committee to Help the Environment of Endangered and Threatened Apes, which will receive proceeds from the sale of Cheeta's artwork.
. . "I like it (artwork). It's got a very free, spontaneous brush work," says Bob Fisher, co-owner of Studio One Eleven.
. . Fisher first purchased an original Cheeta piece last year at the Palm Springs Street Fair.
. . "Some have a childlike quality. Others look more sophisticated," he says.
. . Cheeta's paintings will sell for $150 to $1,000, depending on the size.
. . But whether people will buy the work for its quality or as a novelty item is a tossup.
. . But that doesn't mean Cheeta's artistic abilities should be questioned.
. . "Everything is art," Fisher says.
. . Cheeta's life as an entertainer began when Westfall's uncle, Tony Gentry, an animal collector and trainer, brought the infant Cheeta from Liberia to the United States in 1931 and trained him as an animal star.
. . Cheeta, who debuted in "Tarzan and His Mate" in 1934, was one of four chimps used for the original film series.
. . He retired after a role in the 1967 movie, "Doctor Doolittle."
. . He later went on to perform in theater and circus shows.
. . Remnants of Cheeta's former career line Westfall's walls, along with the chimp's latest artwork.
. . They include black-and-white shots of Cheeta as a youngster on the set of "Tarzan" with co-star Johnny Weissmuller, his Walk of Stars dedication and his Guinness World Record plaque for breaking the record as the oldest ape.
. . Signed with his thumbprint, Cheeta's artwork, colorful and chaotic, with lines of paint splattered across the canvas, hangs next to the old photos.
. . Westfall picks the colors for the paintings and puts the brush in Cheeta's hands, but from there, the artist takes over.
. . "He paints, he's an artist," Westfall says with a smirk.
. . "It's like therapy for him, mentally and physically."
. . For his age, Cheeta sports a few gray hairs but is otherwise rather youthful looking.
. . He strolls from his private enclosure led on a small leash by Westfall and sits his 4-foot frame on a table in the back yard, surrounded by his artwork while his feet dangle in the air.
. . "Sometimes he paints out here, sometimes inside," Westfall says.
. . A plate of chips and a Diet Pepsi is waiting for Cheeta, which he promptly begins to devour as he sits for a photo shoot.
. . As a veteran performer, he still knows how to play to the camera.
. . "Look up, look up," Westfall tells him.
. . Cheeta looks up at the camera and pulls his upper lip over to bare an exited smile for a few seconds. He then closes his mouth and taps his head.
. . "Yes, you're very smart," Westfall reassures him.
. . Cheeta is also out of Pepsi, so he shakes his plastic cup and Westfall goes inside to get him another drink.
. . While he waits, Cheeta finishes his chips and looks out over the pool, enjoying a sunny day in the desert.
. . When he's not painting, Cheeta likes to watch TV, or go out for a drive with Westfall while making faces at people as he rides by.
. . On Sunday, he will pose for pictures at his art show.
. . A week later he will celebrate his 73rd birthday with his 16-year-old grandson Jeeter, who also lives with Westfall.
. . "It's very Palm Springs, retired movie star and all that," Fisher says.
Cheeta sits amongst a collection of his paintings while enjoying a snack at his Palm Springs home.
CHEETA ART SHOW OPENING NIGHT RECEPTION
When: 5 p.m. Sunday. Cheeta will be there at 6:45 p.m. for approximately 30 minutes.
Where: Studio One Eleven, 2675 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. 323-5104.