The Austin Chronicle

The Monkey Time

How communing with the apes inspired the artists of the Texas Monkey Project

By Cindy Widner, August 5, 2005, Arts

It might have been the lemur that set Andy Cockrum off. As a youth, the filmmaker developed a fondness for certain simians of the screen: Lancelot Link, Planet of the Apes' weird, rubbery souls – the usual suspects. One might say that, for a while, the fondness became an obsession. "I was probably the only person alive who watched Me and the Chimp, and I was really upset when it was canceled," he recalls. He requested, but did not receive, a pet monkey. He dreamed of talking to the animals like Dr. Dolittle. He felt the pain of chimpanzees in too-small cages at the zoo, which he nevertheless loved.

As is prescribed for childish things, he put all that aside for a few decades. Then, not too long ago, he saw the lemur: caged, frantic, for sale at a local pet store. He alerted the Austin Zoo, and legal action was pursued. Ultimately, the case "went away," according to Cockrum, but his dormant fascination with monkeys had been jostled. Having successfully completed The Big Push, his documentary about a group of disabled people who climb Everest, he decided his next film would be about chimpanzees.

The director was particularly interested in the "space chimps" shot into orbit during the space race of the early 1960s. An Internet search turned up cryptic information about NASA chimps living near San Antonio. A few e-mails later, Cockrum found himself at Primarily Primates, a nonprofit animal sanctuary in Leon Springs, where for nearly 30 years Wally Swett has taken in, rehabilitated, and provided ongoing care for more than 600 nonhuman primates. Swett showed Cockrum around the sanctuary's 75 bucolic acres, which are not open to the public, and allowed him to film extensively.

Wanting to return the favor, Cockrum hit upon the idea of an art exhibit to benefit the sanctuary. He enlisted the enthusiastic partnership of local graphic designer Christia Madacsi and painter Heyd Fontenot, who rifled through their Rolodexes of art buddies and professional contacts and came up with an impressive roster of artists that they invited to contribute to the benefit and visit Primarily Primates. The response was immediate and overwhelming, even among those artists who couldn't make the trip. "I said, 'I love monkeys, let's do it,'" says ceramicist Edmund Martinez. "They're the closest thing to humans – their faces, their hands. It's kind of like having a weird little brother." And, declared Fontenot in a Lennon-esque moment, "They're even bigger than children."

Artists might be both particularly sensitive to and well-equipped to bridge the civilized disconnect between humans and apes, Fontenot says. "I don't think apes are mischievous, necessarily. I just think they don't fit into polite society. And that would mean every artist, every writer, anybody who actually pushes the boundaries of culture, and makes culture happen. Polite people aren't making anything happen.

Photographer, video director, and sometime Chronicle contributor Traci Goudie agrees. "Artists are the perfect people [for this project]," she says. "Because we're right on the edge of that craziness."

So, in what sounds like the setup to a joke of dubious quality, nine artists walked into a primate sanctuary. They sketched, they photographed, they got to know their subjects/beneficiaries. They spent more time with and in closer proximity to monkeys and apes than they ever had before. The monkeys investigated the artists just as curiously, spitting or throwing poo, signing or hooting, mugging or requesting food, or, frequently, just meeting their gazes, hanging out. The artists had their notions of primates changed or enhanced or confirmed, or had entirely new notions created. They had what they uniformly describe as a profoundly lingering experience. And then they walked out and got to work on the Texas Monkey Project.

Apes Are People, Too

Between knowledge bestowed (at least until recently) by standard-issue public education, visits to zoos, and images from television and movies, we may feel we know apes. Which is why the Monkey Project artists were, to a one, surprised by the profundity of their experience at Primarily Primates.

"We were kind of awestruck," says D'ette Cole, who co-owns the antiques store Uncommon Objects and creates both decorative and gallery-oriented artwork. On the ride back to Austin, "I think we were all processing," she said, "and there were times that we just didn't talk. I think it impacted everybody in a way they maybe hadn't expected it to.

"I don't care if you go the best zoos, this is a collection of animals that is quite unique," she continues. "The things that I was most struck by were just the visuals of taking it in and the variety of the monkeys, but also the sounds. Unless you're there and you can experience just the sort of gravity of what you're hearing – it's very primal. And then the smell is what really did it. I think that's the thing that kind of triggered for me, that sense of familiarity or recognition that this thing is not that far away from what I am."

"I always thought of them as intelligent, but I came away with, 'Oh my god, we really are a hair's breadth apart,'" says Madacsi, who contributed both a photograph and a heroic amount of organizational and marketing work to the project. "Particularly looking at the chimpanzees. It's something I've known, but it's not something I've experienced before. I wished I could have a conversation. And I've never felt that close to an animal before."

"I feel like it's somebody that I've met now," Fontenot says. "I could have spent a week out there, just sitting, especially with the chimpanzees. There's definitely an intelligence there. And an effort to communicate, honestly."

"I've always been fascinated [with primates] and I always thought they were amazing," agrees Goudie. "But not ever, not ever until this have I seen truly how innately intelligent and perceptive and emotionally bright they all are. To look one of them in the eyes, you feel this onslaught of history sort of funneled through your body, almost like you can with a human. [It's] like your paw paw in a monkey suit."

Hill Country Monkeys

"It was like a ranch, you know, a regular Texas-style ranch," says Gallery Lombardi director, painter, and Chronicle art critic Rachel Koper. "But with monkeys behind the fences. And so everywhere you looked there would be baboons or howlers or chimps. And of course we got to see Punkin."

Everyone wants to talk about Punkin. There was something about the orangutan – an entertainment industry vet who died of undetected heart disease a few days after the Monkey Project visit – that gave shape to several of the artists' experiences of the sanctuary.

"Punkin was my favorite," says Cole. "He was just this incredible thing. His head was this massive, beach-ball circumference head, with this little face that was the size of my face in the middle of this vastness, and he just had such a sweetness to him. He was like this really calm person that was just really happy to have the companionship of you sitting there with him. And he didn't really want you to do much else. He was just content sitting there looking at you and you looking at him and talking to him. You know, if he could have cooed, I think he would have."

"Punkin was beautiful," agrees Goudie. "He was such an old man, his voice and his face and his hair. There's something you innately absorb [at Primarily Primates]: There's a sadness but a hope with the way that they emoted. It killed you! They're way more emotionally on top of it than humans are. They just can't communicate it to us. Or at least some of them can – Oliver can," she says, referring to an odd-looking chimp who's been celebrated and has suffered from his notoriety as a purported "humanzee."

"We got to this one part, which was for me the heart of the compound," adds Cole. "It's this beautiful grassy knoll. I went over to Oliver. And Oliver, he's like this little sad old man that had a very long life that hasn't been so kind to him ... and he was just still. I got great sadness from him."

Stages of Evolution

Not that there weren't logistical challenges.

"Not everybody's gonna like chimps because, uh, they're not really appreciative of your help," says Cockrum. In addition to shooting American Chimp, his documentary about the history and exploitation of chimps in the United States, he's also working on a short Monkey Project documentary and a Sounds of Primarily Primates CD to benefit the sanctuary. "I was between enclosures shooting one chimp, and another chimp got the hugest mouthful of water ever and just shot it all over my back. You know, it's like, 'Okay who did it?' And my camera was soaking wet. And also they throw poop at you. I kind of find it endearing, but ..."

Then there was the constant movement and, for some, unfamiliar anatomies.

"It was really difficult to [sketch or] photograph the chimps, because they are moving all the time," recalls Fontenot. For his drawing of a primate hybrid titled Contemplating Apedom, "I was kind of having a tough time with the way the feet looked. So I actually used some photo references that I had from other models, human models, and I combined that, so you're looking at a chimp, but [with human feet]."

"The monkeys move so fast that you really can't get them to pose for you for very long," says Koper. "But there was a big fat one that all it did was sit down and eat. It didn't move, it just sat there. I don't know if it had an eating disorder or what, but it was the only one that really sat still."

"My work is very figurative," says Karen Sorensen, who contributed a haunting rendering of a marmoset hovering in greenish gold space, "so I actually went through some trauma trying to draw this monkey. It was different for me, because I usually work with the female figure. It was different, but I tend to leave my figures suspended in space, so that was very familiar for me."

"You really wish you didn't have to shoot them through bars," says Goudie. "You wish you didn't have this barrier between you. And you almost feel bad that you're taking their picture, because they'll stare at you like, 'All right, what is that now?' But, see, that's not that different from shooting humans. In fact, I would much prefer on many occasions to shoot monkeys than rock stars."

Coming to Terms

Of course, the artists also had to grapple with ways nonhuman primates are different from you and me – most notably in that they've come out on the short end of our mutual history. Because Primarily Primates cares for animals who have suffered from their use in research, the entertainment industry, and as household pets, a visit can bring that troubling love-hate saga into sharp relief.

"It's weird to me that the animals we're closest in relation to, we actually do some of the worst things to," says Cockrum. "Why will we say, 'Oh, they're so close to us that we should make them cute and put them in these human clothes,' but not treat them like you would other humans? Although we treat other humans badly sometimes, too, but not so blithely, I don't think."

The paradox is troublesome for Cockrum, who not only works in the entertainment industry – historically one of the most dangerous places for a primate to find itself – but also credits it for piquing his curiosity about apes in the first place. "What's weird is, I decided I'm going to advocate to keep them off films and television, but that's the thing that got me interested in them."

As Fontenot, no stranger to the sway of the Seventies novelty poster, puts it, "These things that we were fascinated by – the calendars with chimps – it's like, oh it's so funny and cute. But when you actually look behind the scenes at that or the infrastructure of that industry, there's no support for these chimps afterward. There's no retirement plan, no residuals, for Lance Link, you know?"

"It just makes me angry that people don't think far enough to know that when they want a cute little chimp as a house animal, that it's going to grow up to be a very, very frightening, 200-pound thing that would eat you alive if it could," says Andrew Yates, who visited the sanctuary and contributed two lush, quietly moving photographs to the exhibit. "People need to think ahead a little bit on all that stuff."

Some of the artists brought long-standing advocacies and a deep affinity for animals to the project. In her artist's statement, Fort Worth artist Helen Altman, who contributed two of her bafflingly intricate torched-paper works, says, "Animals are the most important thing in my life." Both she and Cole cite their past and current activities in PETA. Others came with a background or interest in the biological sciences.

For Sorensen, who has studied biology and zoology, experience and theory came together in the work. "The whole process of staining paper enables me to go through this thought-provoking method," she says. "While I was producing this piece, I was thinking about things that are going on with the environment. And I was thinking about the ghost of the forest where these animals used to live. My piece is called Histórias de Fantasma, which means 'ghost stories' in Portuguese. Because these marmosets are from Brazil. [I] was thinking of where these animals once inhabited, but they're not there anymore, whether they have died out because of the lack of natural habitat or been removed from their natural habitat for various reasons.

"It had an effect on me. I now am a little more conscious about how much garbage I make, I'm more conscious about my own animals. I mean, they're spoiled rotten anyway, but I've thought more to take the time to give them better attention. So it's had an effect on me, which I'm quite grateful for. It's always great when people come together for a cause. It's motivating." end story

The Texas Monkey Project: 2005 Art Show and Sale runs through Saturday, Aug. 20 (closing reception 6-10pm), at Progress Coffee, 500 San Marcos. For more information, visit

For more about Primarily Primates, see "A Better Place."

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