The Texas Monkey Project

The Texas Monkey Project: 2005 Art Show and Sale runs Saturday, July 23 through Saturday, Aug. 20, at Progress Coffee. All proceeds benefit the Primarily Primates sanctuary

Arts Review

The Texas Monkey Project

July 23-Aug. 20

Progress Coffee, 500 San Marcos

Monkeys in Texas, you say? Heck yes, and apes, too – we have scads, wads, loads, even troops of 'em. Sure, some are in zoos, and others, sadly, still, are here as inappropriate pets or research subjects. But a luckier, oh, say, 600 or so live at Primarily Primates, a peaceful, private, delightfully appointed sanctuary nestled on 75 acres in the San Antonio exurb of Leon Springs.

Founded by the unflagging Wally Swett in 1978, Primarily Primates takes in wild animals whom various citizens have unwisely tried to make into pets, as well as castoffs from the entertainment industry, research facilities, and the odd roadside zoo. The sanctuary is home to more than 800 animals total – including numerous birds, a couple of leopards, horses, dogs, and the occasional lion – but its driving purpose is to give lifetime care to nonhuman primates, with a focus on providing an environment and social groupings that approximate those of their natural habitat, with a minimum of human contact. Swett has been devoted to the cause for most of his adult life, and over the years he has developed a true oasis – an apetopia of sorts – with his nonprofit running entirely on small grants and private donations.

Recently, Swett allowed Austin filmmaker Andy Cockrum, who has his own long-standing interest in primates, to film at the sanctuary (which is not open to the public) for Cockrum's American Chimp documentary. Knowing Swett and his compound are always in need of funding, Cockrum decided to repay him by instigating an art show and sale on the sanctuary's behalf. A meeting of monkeys, chimps, and artists seems natural, somehow, and – after enlisting the enthusiastic partnership of graphic designer Christia Madacsi and painter-about-town Heyd Fontenot – he led a group of nine out to the sanctuary to sketch, photograph, and just generally experience their beneficiaries in something approaching a natural state. After the trip, a number of artists who couldn't make it to the sanctuary contributed sight unseen.

The result is The Texas Monkey Project, a perhaps unintentional showcase of the range of local visual arts talent that is surprising in its breadth and variety. The tone of the work ranges from the classical stateliness of Melissa Grimes' Monkey King to the vaguely disturbing, highly graphic style of Michael Sieben to the vivid almost-abstractions of Faith Gay, with Karen Sorensen's haunting, stained-paper Histórias de Fantasma (Ghost Stories), Fontenot's skewed man-ape study, D'ette Cole's found-object composition, Traci Goudie's photo-collage, Helen Altman's straight-ahead torch drawing, and Andrew Yates' lush photographic portraits, among other highlights, in between.

Then again, there's no reason to get too arty-farty about it. There's just something about monkeys, it seems, that make people want to encounter them, or images of them, in almost any format. The enthusiasm they encountered while planning the project – from Progress Coffee's offering of their superb, gallery-quality space to Jerry's Artarama's help with matting – say the organizers, was resoundingly intense. The opening reception will feature monkey-themed music, a clip from Cockrum's short film about the project and possibly other film clips, sale of originals and prints of the artwork, and, it's rumored, something called "chocolate chimp cookies." Something, in other words, for primate fans of all types and ages. After all, as Fontentot says, "Who can't get behind monkeys?"

The Texas Monkey Project: 2005 Art Show and Sale runs Saturday, July 23 through Saturday, Aug. 20, at Progress Coffee, 500 San Marcos (Fifth Street, two blocks east of I-35). Opening reception Saturday, July 23, 5-9pm. Original works and limited-edition prints will be available for sale at the opening reception and throughout the show. All proceeds benefit the Primarily Primates sanctuary. Sponsored by Progress Coffee, Agave Print, Chris Caselli Photography, Jerry's Artarama, and Firelight Pictures & Design.

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