Paignton Zoo’s Great Gorillas Project sees gorillas take over Devon

PUBLISHED: 09:00 27 September 2013

Tom Smith's gorilla

Tom Smith's gorilla


The zoo is celebrating its 90th birthday with an ambitious plan combining art, conservation and the community

Imagine a life-size model gorilla standing at nearly two metres tall and over a metre long, made of steel-reinforced fibre-glass and painted to resemble, well, anything really. Now imagine 30 of these beautiful beasts dotted around Devon. Welcome to The Great Gorillas Project.

The project is bringing a host of decorative gorillas onto the streets, parks and open spaces of Devon this summer. Sponsored by local businesses and painted with original designs by artists – many of them local - the gorillas form a unique art trail, which runs until mid-October.

Using a map published in local papers and available from various outlets and online, people will be able to spot all of the gorillas for themselves. Over the next few months there will be gorillas on boats and in schools, miniature china gorillas and a special gorilla beer from Bays Brewery. It all reaches a climax with a grand auction at Paignton’s Palace Theatre in November.

Pippa Craddock, the zoo’s Director of Marketing and Development, explains the aims of the project: “The Great Gorillas Project is a world class public art event. It’s a celebration of 90 years of conservation at Paignton Zoo and a thank you to the community for all the support over those years. It is also raising awareness and funds to help the Cross River gorillas of Nigeria, the world’s most endangered gorillas.”

Found along the Nigeria-Cameroon border, fewer than 300 Cross Rivera gorillas remain in the wild. It is the most endangered African ape; ranking among the world’s most endangered species.

The Great Gorillas Project has brought out the best in Devon’s artists. Creative talent from across the county responded with enthusiasm to the call for designs. The zoo received 200 submissions, displaying a quite extraordinary variety of styles and treatments. Artists have come with a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. Seasoned professionals, accomplished amateurs, ceramicists, print-makers, tattoo artists and graffiti specialists have all wanted to be part of this project.

The result is a dazzling display. The gorillas start out looking the same, but end up as just about anything you can imagine. The designs are as varied as the artists, with some fun and wild, and others more serious. Some are dragons, some holiday-makers, and others simply used as 3D fine art canvases. The only thing the designs have in common, apart from their start point, is sheer imagination.

In many cases the artists have great stories to tell. For Plymouth artist Rob Catterall there was only one design he could possibly choose – a dragon, having been obsessed with the fantastical flying beasts since he was little. Dragilla, painted on behalf of South Devon business Inter-Line, is green and comes complete with wings, scales, horns and pointy teeth. He was painted in public at the Guildhall Shopping Centre in Exeter.

And then there’s Chico the chocolate gorilla. He’s been made by award-winning chef Tony Fagan and his partner Simon Storey at The Cockington Chocolate Company. Although at 78cm tall and 76cm long, cheeky chocolate Chico is considerably smaller than the outdoor gorillas, it has still taken 10 kilos of chocolate to cover him. He’s being raffled in aid of the project.

It fell to Paignton Zoo’s resident artist Sue Misselbrook to paint the very first gorilla. Sue, who studied art at Dartington, says: “I was asked to create a gorilla as an ambassador for the project. He became known as Herbert, after the zoo’s founder, Herbert Whitley.”

While the project is based around Paignton Zoo, many partners are needed to make such a big idea work. South West Highways is casting the concrete plinths needed for the gorillas to stand on, while Bays Brewery are brewing a special light ale for the occasion. Surface repair specialist Plastic Surgeon Fine Finishers is providing staff to check and if needs be repair any damage to the gorillas while they are out in public. They are calling themselves the Gorilla Preservation Squad, and have even branded a van to do the job.

Some two dozen smaller gorillas have gone to schools to be decorated by pupils and used as a springboard for a parallel education programme. The school gorillas will be on show in shops and museums and will gather at Babbacombe Model Village in the autumn half-term. At the end of the event, the large sculptures will be auctioned at a gala charity evening. The funds raised will go to gorilla projects and to Children’s Hospice South West.

Great Gorillas is an amazing mix of art, education, conservation and public engagement. Look out for a Great Gorilla near you!

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