Natural selections

Gorilla-made paintings at Franklin Park Zoo
By GREG COOK  |  August 14, 2007
OKIE’S WORK: Animal art makes evident a delight in the process — and makes money for zoos.

“Okie and Little Joe: A Retrospective”
Franklin Park Zoo
| 1 Franklin Park Road, Boston | Through September 14
The gorilla is a black blur, out of nowhere, barreling into the cage door — clang! — and then zooming off through the fake rocks and trees. It scares the bejesus out of me. Zookeeper Brandi Moores says the artistically inclined ape who goes by the name Okie was cranky about not having been fed yet that morning. But I can’t help taking it personally. Okie seems to be telling me, “Stay the fuck away!”

It’s an hour before opening time inside the Franklin Park Zoo’s sweaty Tropical Rainforest building. For three years, Moores has been helping Okie make fingerpaintings. Seven of the gorilla’s works — along with one by his companion Little Joe — are on exhibit in the Rainforest house through September 14. I’ve come to see him in action. There is much art these days about the nature of art and being an artist, but how often do you get the chance to examine the artist’s paintings behind glass and then study the artist himself behind glass?

Dressed in ranger garb and with her brown hair pulled back into a practical ponytail, Moores carries paper and a box of non-toxic children’s paint into a little room beside the gorilla exhibit. I watch warily as she opens a metal door, a sort of airlock between people freedom and gorilla prison, and reveals a heavy metal mesh door behind it. She sits cross-legged on the floor as Okie squats just on the other side. He’s 14, and his black hair is turning gray across his broad strong back, the distinctive coloring that gives adult male gorillas the name “silverback.”

Moores squirts paint out onto paper and slides it under the gate. Okie works from a squat, with one hand, and sometimes a foot, clutching the door’s mesh. His artistic technique is quick and nonchalant. He smears the paint around with his knuckles, maybe adds some fingerprints, or eats some of the pigment. Much of the time he looks elsewhere, seemingly ignoring his work. (Moores says this apparent indifference is unusual and probably a sign of stage fright.) After a minute or two, Moores slides the paper back out under the gate and rewards Okie with grapes or a slice of orange. The painting is a mess of juicy, brightly colored smears.

What is it that so intrigues us about the growing body of art made by apes, elephants, and dogs? We are looking for what distinguishes us from the rest of life on Earth. We crave some common language that will allow us to bridge the evolutionary gap that separates us from our critter cousins. Maybe animal art holds clues to where people art originated. And, of course, it amuses us as a circus stunt.

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