The artist doesnt flinch when a toddler presses a finger to further smudge the already well-smeared glass. Instead, the artist pops a little green seed in and out of her lips on the other side of the panel, playfully, before setting her head in her hands like Rodins thinker.
The artist holds the pose, then strikes a few new ones, as tourists reach out with cameras and camera phones attempting, mostly without success, to capture her essence through the reflection of their own brightly patterned blouses. The artist humors them, because shes older than probably 90 percent of her visitors.
The artists name is Janey, and shes a 50-year-old orangutan, and even though her legs and feet are slowed by arthritis and her black skin shows through her bald shoulders, she still knows shes special. Shes the oldest at the San Diego Zoo, the sole Bornean and the only one in the enclosure that will actually use—and not snap and splinter—paint brushes when she slathers paint on a canvas.
Orangutans in human care can live into their late 50s. Janey is as full of life as Betty White.
She always has that mentality of, like, I may be the oldest one in the room, but Im full of spitfire, keeper Tanya Howard says. She still has that, but shes a very sweet, gentle animal.
Any portrait of the artist as a young primate must necessarily be filled with tragedy. Times were different in 1962. Kidnapping orangutans was commonplace in the rain forests of Borneo, where a mother would be killed just to rip the infant from her long, powerful arms. Janey was kept by private owners in England, about whom little is known except that they taught her to smoke tobacco, until she was acquired by the zoo in 1984. She gave birth to two females in London, but she couldnt be a good mother because she didnt learn how to be one, having hardly known her own mother.
But she celebrated a happy 50th. The first to enter the enclosure each morning, she discovered cupcakes and toys just for her. She figured it out immediately, Howard says.
Shes such an old animal that she knows everything. Shes seen it all; shes been through it all, Howard says. She knows whats expected of her. Shes willing to do it, which is an added bonus, because they are so smart and they are so strong that you cant make an orangutan do what they dont want to do. When you first meet her, shes the one you can learn off of because shes just, like, OK. Let me tell you what youre supposed to do. And if you do something wrong, she looks at you like, No were doing this right now. And youre like, Oh, OK.
In the wild, orangutans arent social, choosing to live solitary, arboreal lives that they cant in a zoo setting. Instead, Janey spends some moments alone in a special spot out of sight, then moves to the edge of the enclosure to bask in the sun on the moats precipice, her so-very-human hands shading her eyes. Later, she contemplates using a stick to dig for a flavored sauce in a little hole meant to approximate a termite mound, and after that, shes showing off at the window. Some children squeal and refuse to get close, others walk straight up to try to connect hand to hand, eye to eye, against the glass.
And the artist obliges.
You can visit Janey during the zoos summer hours, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. June 22 through Sept. 3, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 4 through Sept. 21. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.