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Palette of the Apes

Don't call their works the scrawl of the wild. Some in the art world say one of the primates showed genuine talent.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 8, 2002

[Photos by Ron Cohn,, the Gorilla Foundation]
Michael once drew a bouquet of flowers and named the painting Stink Pink More. Because Koko considered him like a brother, they never mated.
VIRGINIA PARK -- They consider Koko the playful, gregarious one who doesn't like to get paint on her fingers.

They describe Michael, now deceased, as the gifted, sensitive one, whose paintings have earned praise among art lovers.

Both have used canvas to express their emotions and interpret their surroundings.

Not bad for hairy, lowland gorillas.

Nine of their limited edition prints go on display today at the Gold Dragon Gallery on Manhattan Avenue, which specializes in the work of local artists. Proceeds will benefit the Gorilla Foundation, dedicated to protecting the world's largest apes.

The exhibit marks the first in Florida and one of the few nationwide. Based in California, the foundation introduced the gorillas' artwork a few years ago to show the intelligent and emotional side of the often feared, chest-banging beasts.

"The more people are educated about gorillas as amazing beings, the more important it is to preserve them," said Jenifer Patterson, the foundation's marketing director. "They are our cousins."

The nine paintings were created by Koko and Michael in the 1980s and early '90s. Some in the art world have compared Michael to American abstract painter Jackson Pollock, Patterson said.

The artwork was inspired by objects familiar to the gorillas, from Michael's toy dinosaur to a red bell pepper. There's one of Michael's dog, Apple, and another of Koko's favorite bluebird. Both resemble the real things, right down to the colors.

"It's very deliberate," Patterson said. "To me, it's modern art. Expressionism."

Sometimes, the gorillas would paint from a model. Other times they would draw from their imaginations, she said. Human helpers set them up with a canvas, palette of paint and brushes but left it to the apes to create as inspired.

This is a painting by Michael entitled, Me, Myself, Good. He also completed a painting of his dog, Apple.
Not only do they draw, the gorillas communicate through sign language and understand some English. When Koko drew a pink heart, she used sign language to call it "love." Michael named his painting of a bouquet of flowers, Stink Pink More.

In the past 25 years, Koko has mastered a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words, says Penny Patterson, foundation president and sister of the marketing director. Michael, who died of a heart attack in 2000, knew more than 600 signs.

By communicating through hand gestures, researchers hope to learn more about gorillas and how to save them from extinction. The gorilla population in Africa dwindles every year because of habitat destruction and poaching for meat. Only about 600 mountain gorillas -- the rarest type -- live in the wild.

"It's a race now," Jenifer Patterson said. "Can we educate people and stop this before they are gone?"

Owners of the Gold Dragon Gallery decided to host the exhibit after learning more about the gorillas and their plight. Co-owner Larry Schoonover said he got hooked watching a video of them "talking" with humans and cuddling with a kitten.

"These gorillas have a wonderful sense of humor. They are capable of lying, being embarrassed or shy," said Schoonover, a retired Navy diver and longtime wildlife supporter.

Money raised from the artwork will go to the foundation, established in 1976. Each limited edition print sells for $150 to $300, unframed. T-shirts with the gorillas' art cost about $20.

Foundation officials said sales will help create a 70-acre gorilla preserve on the mountainous Hawaiian island of Maui. A supporter donated the land, but the group needs about $3-million to build research facilities and eventually an off-site visitor center in nearby Lahaina.

Researchers hope the jungle environment makes the gorillas feel more at home.

At age 31, Koko is running out of time to reproduce. It never happened with Michael because she loved him like a brother, her keepers said. Subsequent suitors didn't light her fire.

Koko, who is 31, is probably the better known of the two gorillas. She has mastered a vocabulary of 1,000 words using sign language.
Schoonover and gallery co-owner Billie Cox-Glimpse plan to make the gorilla art exhibit an annual event. At tonight's reception, they will pass out literature about the foundation and show a 12-minute video of the gorillas in action.

The public is invited.

"We want to make people aware that their closest living primate relatives are being slaughtered every day," Schoonover said.

Ape artwork won't be the only allure. The exhibit also features items from Tampa-area artists Daniel Dew, Richard Stewart and Marc Sonenberg.

Dew makes colored prints from carved wood blocks. Stewart creates computer-enhanced nature photographs. Sonenberg works in ceramics.

They leave the painting to the gorillas.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or

About the artists:


  • BORN: March 1973 in Cameroon, Africa
  • DIED: April 19, 2000
  • FAMILY: Killed by poachers
  • HEIGHT: 6 feet
  • WEIGHT: 450 pounds
  • FAVORITE FOODS: Nuts, apples, peanut butter sandwiches
  • FAVORITE TV SHOWS: Sesame Street and Mister Rogers
  • FAVORITE TOY: Construction pipes
  • FAVORITE MUSIC: Opera sung by Luciano Pavarotti


  • BORN: July 4, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo
  • HEIGHT: 5 feet 1
  • WEIGHT: 280 pounds
  • FAVORITE FOOD: Nuts, gourmet tofu dishes, apples, corn on the cob
  • FAVORITE TV SHOW: Wild Kingdom
  • FAVORITE MOVIE: Free Willy
  • FAVORITE TOY: Rubber alligator
  • FAVORITE BOOK: The Three Little Kittens

-- Source: The Gorilla Foundation,

If you go

The Gold Dragon Gallery, 3508 S Manhattan Ave., opens its gorilla artwork exhibit with a reception from 6 to 9 tonight. Admission is free. The show, which benefits the Gorilla Foundation, continues through Dec. 31. For information, call 832-2755.

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