Jen Bradley’s Ape Drawing Project opens in the Lehman Art Center.
The gorillas at the Franklin Park Zoo know Jen Bradley. She goes to see them at least once a month and stays for a minimum of four hours. When she arrives, she takes out charcoal and 20’’ x 24’’ paper, sits, and draws the animals while they stare inquisitively back at her.
“The habitual practice of drawing these creatures has become a ritual, an act of worship for me,” she writes in a description of her exhibition, Portraits, Prophets, Friends, currently on display in the Lehman Art Center. “I refer to it as The Ape Drawing Project.”
The project includes work created from 2001 to the present, and is inspired by the drawings of gorillas she has done at the Franklin Park Zoo. This is the first time an exhibition of her work has included both paintings and the drawings that inspired them. The result is the rewarding experience of witnessing her process, from observation and sketching to abstract, emotional paintings of the animals. Bradley is on campus this week to work with students, share her artistic process with them and enlist their help in creating a site-specific installation for the exhibition opening Nov. 21.
Working with a 2-D art class on Tuesday, Bradley began by taking the students to the Lehman to show them her work. After giving them time to walk around the gallery on their own, she explained how she began drawing gorillas.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be a spy,” she said. But Bradley soon realized that to be a spy she needed content, and so she studied psychology and biology as ways of exploring the world around her. She first saw the gorillas at the zoo during a field trip for an anthropology class, and was immediately drawn in.
“Gorillas are in-between the animal and the human world,” she said. “They’re the link.”
Six years ago at the zoo, Bradley said she started to notice the humans around her as they watched the animals. This experience inspired her to begin including humans in her work, which she did by incorporating traditional toile from fabric or wallpaper into her paintings.
The addition of toile to her work creates a striking effect. Her large canvases depict gorillas in rich, earthy tones, but upon closer inspection they include outlines of traditional patterns showing people in domestic or pastoral settings.
“Humans are apes,” she said to the students. “We forget that.”
But Bradley didn’t only talk about her own work; she explained that she wanted to collaborate with the students on a site-specific installation in the gallery.
“Really look at this wall,” she told the students, pointing out an empty wall at the gallery entrance. “We’re going to have to place these objects in a way that’s visually appealing, thoughtful and exciting.”
Her idea was to have students draw on panels that she would then assemble onto the wall, working her own panels in with theirs. Back in the art classroom, she asked the students to draw eyes and hands on their panels.
“When you see a primate, the first thing you notice is their eyes or their hands,” she said. “They’re very human-like.”
Supplied with panels and charcoal, students began by either taking pictures of their own eyes using their iPhones, or they used their non-dominant hand as a model while drawing with their other hand.
While working with the students, Bradley is hoping that some of what she says about artistic process will resonate with them.
“I want them to allow themselves to follow something that interests them without knowing where it will lead them,” she said.
This is something Bradley does herself, and art teacher Amy Graham is hoping students will be inspired by her down-to-earth personality. Graham mentioned a moment when Bradley told the students the reason she incorporated toile into her paintings was because she liked it and thought it was cool.
“It’s really important for them to hear that,” she said. “There is no wink, it’s just do and explore.”
Bradley says her process of visiting the gorillas, drawing them, and then painting back at her studio is one of exploration; every time, she learns something about herself and the world around her.
“There’s this other-worldly thing that happens,” Bradley said, describing her experience at the zoo. “You get in touch with your childhood. It’s freeing.”
She also hopes to show students the real life of an artist. She taught her classes wearing paint-covered Carhartt overalls and boots.
“I want them to see that I’m a worker,” she said. “This is my job, and it’s physical.”
Bradley is hoping to have students join her at the zoo in the spring, where they will be able to sit and draw with her or explore interests in science or conservation.
“I hope they will have an experience they weren’t expecting,” she said, noting that sitting still for hours watching the animals can feel awkward, but that sticking around all day is an enriching experience.
Bradley is also interested in what she can learn from the students, both from their reaction to her work and from the questions they ask in class.
As for her hopes for her exhibition in the Lehman, she wants people to think about the link between the animal and human world, and our link to nature. Gorillas, she points out, are unencumbered by many of the things in society that tend to weigh humans down. They are more present, she says.
“I hope they are like, ‘that lady’s obsessed with gorillas,’ but also that they can see that it goes beyond that. I want the paintings to reflect the vulnerability and power that is experienced by all animals, including us humans.”
Opening at the Robert Lehman Art Center
Come join us in the Lehman Art Center tonight, Nov. 21, for the opening of Jen Bradley's Ape Drawing Project.
Enjoy artisanal truffles and drinking chocolate from The Dancing Lion Chocolatier in Manchester, NH, and meet the artist.