Exhibit showcases finger-paintings by zoo's star chimp

Betsy's art from the '50s at the Dime Museum

Family: events, activities

January 08, 2004|By Lori Sears | Lori Sears,SUN STAFF

Just ask John Waters. Or William Donald Schaefer. Or Rebecca Hoffberger even. They'll tell you all about Betsy. About her raw artistic talent. And her impact on Baltimore.

Betsy, of course, is the finger-painting chimpanzee who spent most of her life at the Baltimore Zoo. She lived from 1951 to 1960.

The American Dime Museum is honoring the primate artist with the exhibit Baltimore's Betsy -- The Finger-Painting Chimp: A Retrospective of Her Work, Saturday through March 21.

About 15 of Betsy's colorful paintings will be on display, as well as news articles and posted remembrances of Betsy by local notables, including Waters, Schaefer and Hoffberger.

Waters, for example, writes: "`Betsy' was the Jackson Pollock of the Baltimore Zoo. Not only was she a media star, she was a great artist who inspired me as a child. Long live the art of Betsy!"

Betsy's paintings are on loan from the Baltimore Zoo, from the old Haussner's restaurant and from American Dime Museum owner Richard Horne's personal collection.

"I've had a couple [paintings] for years," Horne says. "I've always liked Baltimore history and the quirky Baltimore back then."

Betsy made quite a name for herself in the '50s, having been profiled on national TV programs (The Garry Moore Show and The Tonight Show) and in numerous publications, including a two-page spread in Collier's magazine.

"The late '50s were a changing time, and she fit right in," Horne says. "The exhibit is as much about Baltimore as it is [about] Betsy. She was a comment on what Baltimore was at the time. And she was a symbol of change."

It was zookeeper Arthur Watson who changed the face of the zoo and brought 2-year-old Betsy to Baltimore from Liberia in 1953 and put her in art classes. And once he did, the zoo gained a great deal of recognition.

However, not all the publicity was positive.

"She got on the wrong side of abstract-expressionists," Horne says. And, "Salvador Dali hated her."

Love her or loathe her, Betsy was a fascinating character in '50s Baltimore. And the exhibit serves as an appreciation of the unique artistry of the monkey.

Horne says that in about a month, the museum will be offering a finger-painting competition for kids. And there will be a slew of chimpanzee masks for visitors to wear, as well.

The exhibit's opening reception is from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow. It's free and open to the public. And refreshments will be served -- wine and, of course, bananas.

The exhibit "Baltimore's Betsy -- The Finger-Painting Chimp: A Retrospective of Her Work" runs Saturday through March 21 at the American Dime Museum, 1808 Maryland Ave. Free reception 7 p.m.-9 p.m. tomorrow. Regular admission is $3-$5. Call 410-230-0263.

For more family events, see Page 38.

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