By Paola A. Rosa-Aquino
BU News Service
A golden fall morning found artist Jen Bradley clad in paint-splattered overalls, crouched as usual in a corner of the Tropical Forest exhibit of the Franklin Park Zoo. An assemblage of charcoal pencils and sketchbooks are spread out on the floor. Behind her, a black tote bag held sketchbooks filled with dozens of unfinished drawings. Schoolchildren streamed past her, yelling excitedly. Bradley’s eyes shifted up to observe her subject only a few yards away, separated from her by a pane of thick glass. The 45-year-old western lowland gorilla, Gigi, glanced back. A zoo-goer asked Bradley, “Does she pose for you?” Bradley chuckled.
For 23 years, the artist has made the drawings from her zoo visits her magnum opus: the “Ape Drawing Project.”
It all started in 1994, when Bradley visited the Franklin Park Zoo for her biological anthropology class during her last year at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She had visited the zoo many times as a kid, but this time she was asked to observe and record primate behavior. For Bradley, the most intuitive way to process that information was by drawing.
After finishing the class, Bradley realized her time spent at the gorilla habitat was the cross-disciplinary influence her artistic work was lacking. She challenged herself to spend a whole day with the gorillas once a week for an entire year.
“I didn’t expect that I would be doing this twenty-three years later,” she said. “It’s one of the few consistent things in my life.”
A childhood connection with nature
Bradley’s foray into both art and science can be traced to her childhood.
“I grew up in a science household,” she said. Her father was a biology professor. On Saturdays, while her mother was in nursing school, he would send her off to acquire pond water. She would set up the slides, peer through the microscope and draw what she discovered through this portal to a new, unexpected world.
The “Ape Drawing Project” mirrors the unexpectedness of the natural world that she discovered at a young age. Bradley arrives at the zoo with no preconceptions of what the day will bring, during what she proudly claims is her “own reality TV show.”
She watches the action unfold as the gorillas trek across their habitat. Unless they are sleeping, the gorillas rarely stay still for long periods. Often, Bradley begins a drawing, but the gorilla moves, so she must pick up a different drawing and revisit the first one later. She said completing a finished charcoal drawing in one sitting is unrealistic.
Following a full day at the zoo, Bradley takes these drawings back to her studio to use as reference. She paints on large canvasses, aggressively building layer upon layer of line and texture with different materials, balancing thick oil paint and glazing. According to the artist, the power behind the paintings comes from having been at the zoo, immersed in a powerful private experience.
More than an art project
Over the years, the project has evolved. Rather than simply observing the gorillas, Bradley has shifted her artistic gaze to also pay attention to the public. According to the artist, zoos are an excellent place to study the habits of humans; parents and children visiting the gorilla habitat have their own unique behaviors.
“It’s apes watching apes,” she said. Bradley, operating at the intersection of sociology, psychology, and anthropology, notes this and makes it integral to her work.
“She knows the names of each gorilla, she knows their history, she knows their specific personality,” said Justin Freed, a documentarian and Bradley’s frequent collaborator. “Her connection to the inner light of these creatures gives rise to some very personal statements on her part.”
Bradley bred a level of intimacy with the gorillas at the Franklin Park Zoo throughout her 23 years of visits. She jokes that she’s bleached her hair because Little Joe, a male gorilla that is anything but little, is fond of blondes. She even wants to have a shared birthday celebration with Gigi.
“We’re both 45,” she said. “And Gigi is the gorilla I’ve known the longest.”
She stared through the window separating her from these gorillas, looking once again at Gigi perched on top of a rock.
“I love the freedom gorillas have that we don’t because we’re so uptight about everything,” she said. “Sometimes I just think, ‘How can I be more gorilla?’”