Accidental Artist

The American Dime Museum's retrospective of the works of that extraordinary painter, Betsy the chimpanzee, raises questions about the nature of creativity.

January 12, 2004|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

It is, in most ways, just another art exhibit. There is wine and cheese, and classical music, and people with art degrees peering intently at abstract paintings, talking about curvilinear shapes and undulating lines and the echoes of Pollock's style.

There are also bananas.

"Would you like a banana?" someone asks.

But other than the bananas; and the photographs of a chimpanzee wearing a dress; and the fact that the chimpanzee wearing the dress painted the 15 works in this retrospective - which opened Friday night for a 10-week run at the American Dime Museum - this is, in every other way, just another art exhibit.

Baltimore, meet Betsy. Or more accurately, welcome her back. Because if the year were 1957, instead of 2004, you would most likely already know her. In those days, the local newspapers tracked Betsy's every move, from her appearances on national television to her art show in London to her home in the monkey house at the Baltimore Zoo, where she first began finger-painting in 1953. With the help of a promotion-savvy zoo director who sold the paintings to raise funds, Betsy's bold swirls of color attracted international attention at a time when much of the public was grappling to understand abstract art.

"It was a different time - people were looser then," says Dick Horne, proprietor of the Dime Museum. "They were willing to poke fun at themselves more readily."

It's hard to say how many of Betsy's paintings had been sold when she died in 1960 at age 9, or how many of her works are still in existence today. Most of those in Horne's retrospective are on temporary loan from the Baltimore Zoo; three others came from individual collections.

"It's one of our prized possessions," says Dee Dee Taylor of Baltimore, who considers her Betsy both a piece of art and of history. She bought the painting - which she knew was done by Betsy because the chimp's name is inscribed on a plaque attached to the frame - after years of eyeing in it in a College Park thrift store.

"I was really poor, and it was $50 and I couldn't afford to buy it," said Taylor, a registrar at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "It killed me."

Friday night, in a crowded display room at the Dime Museum, Taylor admired Betsy's handiwork yet again. The trunklike strokes of black paint with subtle streaks of red - "The Giant Redwood" is the aptly chosen title engraved on the plaque - is darker and more forceful than most of the other works in the exhibit, with a sense of purposefulness that makes it stand out from many of the more frenetic paintings.

"People love it," Taylor said. "They know it's something, even if they don't quite understand what it is."

Like most art exhibits, the retrospective of Betsy's work raises plenty of questions it can't answer. How much of the work, for example, was Betsy's alone? How much did her trainers - by picking her paint colors or deciding when to take away paper - shape the finished product? How much do these paintings reflect the choices of the living creature whose round fingerprints dot some of her works like signatures? When is something accident and when is it art?

"Everybody has their own definition of what a visionary artist is," says Horne. "Mine is that they create for nobody other than themselves. As long as they enjoy and they get pleasure out of what they created, then that's great. ... There are no boundaries and no expectations. It's just what it is."

Chimp for a day

Do you know a child between the ages of 3 and 6 who likes to monkey around with fingerpaints? Take him or her to the American Dime Museum at 1808 Maryland Ave. between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Feb. 14 for an afternoon of Betsy-style art-making. Fingerpaints and chimpanzee masks will be provided. Museum admission is $5 for adults and free for the young artists. Call 410-230-0263.

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