By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
With millions of tiny ink dots, some smaller than a speck of sand, Valerie Romano pays homage to mankind’s closest living relative — chimpanzees.
The former Clovis Community College and Eastern New Mexico University instructor stumbled upon her greatest artistic inspiration late in life. She was 45 years old when she volunteered to work in the world’s largest sanctuary for former laboratory chimps in Alamogordo.
Her experience there yielded 21 intimate ink and acrylic portraits of the chimps.
“I was really struggling with my own artwork,” said Romano from her Cloudcroft home, where she and her husband own six isolated acres. “I felt unable to free my own voice as an artist.”
The chimps at the sanctuary suffer a similar fate. The first 21 housed at the Alamogordo safe haven were used for Air Force experiments. The next 266 were acquired from an Alamogordo biomedical research lab.
The chimps in the Alamogordo sanctuary, closed to the public, are not free. They live in barren cages, in the same compound where the Air Force kept them, waiting to be shipped to a Florida island.
The island refuge, with jungle gyms and 200 acres to explore, is not fully constructed. Only 65 of the 287 chimps from the labs have been moved there. The rest await relocation, which hinges on more funds for construction, according to Romano.
“I truly felt like I had to tell their story through my art,” said Romano, who, prior to coming to the sanctuary, painted pastel landscapes, which she said, “meant nothing” to her.
“There is a sense of sadness in their eyes, but there is also a sense of forgiveness,” she said.
“When I had spare time, I really looked into their eyes. I made this connection with them. There is a lot more to chimps than most people realize. They are our next of kin,” Romano said.
Chimpanzees share all but 1.4 percent human DNA, according to Save the Chimps. Romano witnessed the uncanny humanity of the animals: They mourn the death of other chimps, form intense relationships with humans and other chimps, have brutal fights and go through periods of depression, boredom and glee, Romano said.
That deep range of emotion is captured in her portraits.
“It is like looking at people,” said Maryanne Prior, supervisor of the Clovis Community College bookstore. She peered at the portraits in the gallery one day this week, her nosed pressed inches from the canvas. “I interpret this one as an old man,” she said, lingering near a portrait of a chimp with deep creases in his face, his hair a wiry mess, a resignation in his eyes.
Each of the chimps is graced with names — Jennifer, Jeannie, Tarzan, Marty, Elway, Phyllis, Jack. Romano named her portraits for the chimps they portray and set them against a rainbow of backdrops — glittery gold, sky blue, forest green.
If she had conformed entirely to reality, all of her portraits would include the criss-crossing bars that separated her from the chimps, or the dank insides of their cages. Romano “wanted to convey a sense of freedom for the chimps,” she said. “There is freedom in their future.”
The artist forged a strong bond with one chimp in particular, Cheetah. The two would spend hours mimicking one another. She would clap her hands, and he would respond with claps of his own. She nursed his addiction to cinnamon Altoids, introducing him to the spicy mints. Romano said Cheetah would bang his leathery knuckles on the bottom of his cage, indicating he wanted her to flick him another mint.
“He would take really long drinks,” Romano laughed, “and you knew his mouth was on fire.”
For all the joy the chimps have given Romano, her friendship with them and the art that flourished because of it, has left her feeling guilty, she said.
“I went to Alamogordo to help the chimps. I never expected they would give this back to me,” she said.
The artist said she learned how to paint from her heart because of the animals.
“People need to know,” she said, “that these are truly compassionate beings, and they should be treated so.”
• Romano’s chimpanzee portraits, titled “Beyond Bars: A Portrait of Hope,” are being exhibited in the Clovis Community College Eula Mae Edwards Gallery until June 30. The college is open Monday through Friday. If the gallery is closed during hours, someone at the information desk can have it opened for viewing.
• For more information on the Alamogordo and Florida chimpanzee sanctuary program, called “Save the Chimps,” visit www.savethechimps.org.