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” show and fundraiser. One of his customers at the gallery is a volunteer 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. This customer recently came in to frame a painting done by an orangutan 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 them,” said Brand. “They need a lot of money for their care.”
You see, the animals living at the Center for Great Apes are not the typical zoo dwellers. They’ve been “humanized,” as Brand says. 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. Most have been abandoned or retired from show business and they don’t understand what has happened to their lives, says Brand. The apes were suddenly left in a new place, without clothes, and with a bunch of other creatures that look like them.
It’s confusing and “they go through some intense feelings,” Brand explains. Over time, they’ve come to act more like ‘normal’ apes again, but will always need special attention.
That’s where painting comes in. The animals typically spend about a half hour painting with non-toxic materials. “When they paint, show the apes Bob Ross on TV,” Brand tells PEOPLE. “He has a soothing voice.”
While the televised art icon inspires some of the animals, 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.)
Still, a few are quite prolific, including the Center’s most famous inhabitant, Bubbles. In the past, the chimp’s paintings have sold for as much as $2,500 at auction according to Vice Creators. 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, orangutans (including Popi) from the ’80s movie Going Ape starring Tony Danza and Danny DeVito (she also costarred with Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way But Loose and Every Which Way You Can), 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.)
In addition, 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 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.