This headline is not fake news. We repeat, there’s no monkey business here: Bubbles the Chimp, former pet of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, really is the star of a new art exhibition opening in Miami on July 21.
PEOPLE spoke to Adam Brand, the owner of Frames USA & Art Gallery and human mastermind behind the “Apes that Paint” art show and fundraiser. Some of his customers at the gallery are volunteers at the Center for Great Apes, a permanent sanctuary for rescued and retired chimps and orangutans that come from the entertainment industry, research labs and the exotic pet trade, located in Wauchula, Florida. Over the past few years, customers have come in to frame photos of apes and some chimpanzee paintings done as part of the center’s animal enrichment and art therapy program. Intrigued, Brand asked to visit the center and drove over three hours to this incredibly unique, 100-acre facility for a tour. On his way home, he had an epiphany.
“Maybe my frame shop can do an exhibit to raise funds for The Center,” said Brand. “They need a lot of money for their care and for the Center’s expansion.”
You see, the animals living at the Center for Great Apes are not the typical zoo dwellers. They’ve been “humanized,” as Brand says, or had terrible pasts. Like Bubbles, many of these apes have the mental capacity of a 3 or 4-year-old human child. They have been fed and cared for their whole lives by humans. Many of the apes wore clothing and thought they were humans, too. Some have grown too big for proper care by their human families, others have been used in research or abandoned, while others have been retired from show business. Some of these apes don’t understand what has happened to their lives, says Brand. Those who were brought up as exotic pets suddenly find themselves in a new place, without clothes, and with a bunch of other creatures that look like them. It’s a uniquely different experience from that of zoo animals.
Patti Ragan, the director of the Center, explains that the sanctuary currently houses 47 apes: 26 chimps and 21 orangutans. “Enrichment is a federal law for apes,” Ragan tells PEOPLE. “The best enrichment is companionship with their own species. Racing around with each other, tickling, grooming … the apes play together in big tubs of water, they build forts with sheets and tents … painting [on canvases] is just one of the enrichment opportunities.”
The animals typically spend about a half hour painting with non-toxic materials. Others will spend their time destroying the canvas — trying to eat it, ripping it in half or throwing it across the room. “Sometimes they want to paint, and sometimes they don’t,” says Brand. (Above, see Popi enjoying her paints.)
Ragan says the apes will paint on the walls, on their toys, on their friends’ feet. Some prefer chalk. “One female will look in a mirror and draw on her face,” Ragan tells PEOPLE. (This particular orangutan happened to costar in Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.)
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Quite a few of the apes are prolific, including the Center’s most famous inhabitant, Bubbles. In the past, the chimp’s paintings have sold for as much as $1,500 at auction. Brazilian pop artist Romero Britto bought a Bubbles original masterpiece at Art Basel for an undisclosed amount in 2012. (See Bubbles in action below.)
Other celebrity apes living at the Center include Jonah and Jacob, the chimps who worked with Mark Wahlberg on Planet of the Apes, Popi the orangutan from the ’80s movie Going Ape starring Tony Danza and Danny DeVito (she also costarred with Clint Eastwood in 1980’s Any Which Way You Can, along with another orangutan), and Bam Bam, the animal star of the NBC soap opera Passions.
Check out a video of Jacob’s creative process:
For the 10-day exhibition opening on July 21, Brand says 61 paintings are being created by the apes. Most of these canvases will have an asking price between $300 – $500, while the two or three painted by Bubbles will be more expensive. “He’s like the Babe Ruth of the show, his paintings are more nostalgic,” says Brand, comparing the famous chimp’s work to the legendary Yankee’s baseball card. He’s hopeful the exhibit will raise funds in the ballpark of $18,000.
“Purchasing a piece of original art by apes is a collectible. It creates conversation, it is a form of expression, and it is rare,” says Brand in a press release about the show. “Not to mention that the proceeds from the sales of the art will go to an amazing cause.” (See BamBam getting creative below.)
Ragan adds that at an accredited sanctuary like the Center for Great Apes, the focus is on good nutrition, healthcare and enrichment for the animals. She says that Michael Jackson was wonderful, but “after six years, even he couldn’t manage a chimp in his home.” Babies grow up to be adults with special needs and considerations; it can cost as much as $20,000 a year to care for each ape. With 47 apes in house, the Center relies on membership and donations to operate and expand.
Brand says he hopes this show will inspire more animal-related rescues and care centers to get help with fundraising for their wards in creative ways.
“This is just a start for a small art gallery, thinking out of the box to help out and also a way for a small business to market itself,” says Brand.
Attendees will enjoy complimentary food, wine sponsored by Carolina Ale House, and a limited edition gift with their RSVP to the event.