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Monkey business with the B-52s at the Miami art shows

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Spread over a dozen islands off the east coast of central Florida, there’s a huge, but little-known animal sanctuary. Open to the public two days a year, it is the roaming home to 266 chimpanzees rescued from medical research, pet cages and Hollywood productions. It’s also home to dozens of paintings. Not of the animals, but by them, in collaboration with, even more unexpectedly, members of art pop group the B-52s.

Monkey business with the B-52s at the Miami art shows
Monkey business with the B-52s at the Miami art shows

“Save the Chimps!” explains Kate Pierson, longtime singer with the 80’s-era band, is her passion project, and her devotion to animal welfare goes way back. “In 1988, I got up on the stage at the Animal Rights Music Festival at the Washington Monument holding the hand of a big chimp. It was surreal. I felt a connection.”

Pierson, emblematic for her bright red, rocket-ship hairdo, rose to fame with a quartet of performers best known for the song “LoveShack” and a cult-like fan following. The B-52s broke out of the Athens, Georgia, music scene in the late 1970s and went on to become “the quintessential party band,” according to “Rolling Stone.”

They discovered Save the Chimps after Dan Mathews, a director of the sanctuary, went backstage after a concert last year and invited Pierson to see it. The sanctuary “is acres and acres,” said Pierson, and a lush, grassy home to its great apes. “Some of them climb, some of them like lolling around in hammocks — then there are the chimps that want to paint.”

Monkey business with the B-52s at the Miami art shows
Monkey business with the B-52s at the Miami art shows

Now, to raise money for the sanctuary, the joint works created by the B-52s (who prime the primates’ canvases in the colors of the band’s album covers) and the chimp artists (who do the rest) go on sale December 6 at the Spectrum Art Fair in Miami Beach. A couple dozen of the abstract collaborations will be offered, priced between $1,000 to $5,000. All proceeds go to the charity.

The fair takes place during Art Basel Miami Beach and Miami Art week, blockbuster art and culture events that draw hundreds of thousand people to the beachside city every December from all over the world.

It’s nearly impossible to get attention to your event during the packed week: Corporate sponsors, luxury retailers and publicists trying to get on the radar of the monied, global clientele in attendance have organized custom balloon rides, staged burlesque queen Dita Von Teese riding a giant lipstick and chartered yachts with DJ sets from Drake. But this event is in a league of its own.

“We had to come up with something really unique to get people’s attention,” Dan Mathews of Save the Chimps told CNN of the simian showcase.

At first, giving Save the Chimps a free booth at the fair seemed like a feel-good stunt, according to Eric Smith, owner of the Spectrum fair. Then he watched a video of Vanilla, a chimp who had spent decades in a cage, seeing the sky for the first time at the sanctuary — and going nuts with joy. It “grabbed my heartstrings,” said Smith, who owns five other art fairs around the country.

Monkey business with the B-52s at the Miami art shows
Monkey business with the B-52s at the Miami art shows

Smith declined to address the artistic value of the chimps’ paintings, but notes, “Kate attracts people who might not see an art fair.”

Now 75, Pierson is, like her fellow septagenarians Cher and Dolly Parton, having a bit of a renaissance. Her band just finished up a residency at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, and attended a dinner at the White House in October. And although the band has done a “Farewell Tour,” don’t believe it — they’re doing another set of shows at the Venetian in April 2024.

“We never expected to last, to have long careers,” Pierson told CNN. It’s kind of crazy that we are still going… we haven’t been the hardest working band in showbusiness.”

Now they’re not just hard-working though, she notes — they’re multi-tasking their music and art with “Dan (Mathews) tossing the canvases at us and we’re putting paint on them” before they are brought to the chimps to weigh in.

So far, they’ve raised $55,000 from sales of the works, at exhibitions in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Las Vegas, according to Mathews.

Like humans who pick up different hobbies, only about one in 10 chimps at the sanctuary enjoy painting, explains Mathews, but those that do are serious about it. Forty-something chimp Cheetah is perhaps the most impassioned creative; he mixes his paint studiously, stirring with a paintbrush until he’s reached the desired shade.

The chimpanzee painters have different styles — some splash paint, other use their hands, feet or brushes. As they paint, they are thoughtful, although other chimps often make fun of them, Mathews noted.

But artists have always suffered critics.

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