Bubbles the Chimp, Artist: Famous Primates to Exhibit Original Paintings During Art Basel

When contemporary art star Jeff Koons immortalized Michael Jackson and Bubbles the Chimp in 1988, little did he imagine that the celebrity primate would one day follow in his footsteps to become the featured artist during an Art Basel exhibit.

Back then, Koons created a series of three life-sized gold leaf-plated porcelain statues of the sitting pop icon cuddling Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee who was just a few years old at the time. Not long afterwards, one of Koons' sculptures, part of his "Banality" series, sold at Sotheby's New York for $5.6 million.

Today Bubbles is 26 years-old and lives at the Center for Great Apes, a non-profit sanctuary for chimpanzees and orangutans located in Wauchula, Florida, where he has swapped the eccentric vices of his youth for stability and a budding career as a painter.

Beginning tonight at 7 p.m., and running through Sunday, Bubbles is also the star attraction in "Endangered," a group show at the Miami Club Rum Distillery in Wynwood.

The fundraising exhibition features works by a dozen artists, some represented by the Octavia Art Gallery and includes works by other talent living at the Center for Great Apes which benefits from the show's proceeds.

Some might remember that at the same time Koons' career began soaring, the pampered Bubbles, who was raised at Neverland Ranch on a diet of candy, slept in the singer's bed and never left Jackson's side when he was touring, found his own fortunes plummeting. By the time he turned six Jackson placed Bubbles with a California animal trainer who often worked with Hollywood on films featuring exotic wildlife.

"We have 45 great apes here," says Patti Ragan, founder and director of the Center for Great Apes who rescued Bubbles after the animal trainer died. "Bubbles found a home here in 2004. He's highly intelligent and loves painting. Great apes can live to be 60 and beyond. We have a 170 acre sanctuary with nurturing activities and environments for them to play in," she adds.

Ragan's center is one of nine of its kind in North America. It also houses Popi, an orangutan who played leading lady to Clint Eastwood's primate co-star in 1978's Every Which Way but Loose. Ragan who says Popi will also be exhibiting in the show.

She says many of the animals she cares for come from the entertainment business, medical research centers, and from people who buy exotic animals and discard them when they can no longer handle them.

"Bubbles loves to paint and draw so we give him a tray with about 5 non-toxic colors that won't harm him if he eats it. Mostly Bubbles paints abstract compositions and has a lot of fun doing it," Ragan says.

Although Bubbles won't be commanding Koons-like prices, one of his canvases did sell at his Basel debut before the show opened. Bubbles snagged a cool $1,500 for his opus, which will remain on view for the exhibit's duration.

On display you will additionally find portraits of the apes the center cares for by Garry Kravit, an artist who moonlights as a pilot for United Airlines. Artist Jeffrey Pitt, a primatologist by training, has also created a special piece focusing on great apes for the exhibition.

"Endangered" has also lineup nightly special events beginning at 7 p.m. each evening with fashion shows, goody bags, and other surprises. A donation of $25 for the evening events is suggested.

"Endangered" through December 9 at Miami Club Rum, 2320 N Miami Ave. Miami. Open 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. Call 305-438-9994 or visit

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Ciara LaVelle is New Times' former arts and culture editor. She earned her BS in journalism at Boston University and moved to Florida in 2004. She joined New Times' staff in 2011.
Contact: Ciara LaVelle