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The Nature of Creativity

by Belinda Recio

Imagine a London art auction in 2005, where a virtually unknown and deceased artist outsold French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pop artist Andy Warhol. Now imagine that this artist was a chimpanzee named Congo.

Born in 1954, Congo began painting at age two when his caregiver, British zoologist Desmond Morris, put a paintbrush in his hand. The young chimpanzee took to it immediately. He often asked to paint, disliked being interrupted while making art, and sometimes screamed if somebody tried to take a painting away from him before it was finished. It seemed to Morris that Congo—whose artistic style was described as “lyrical Abstract Impressionism”—found painting rewarding in itself without any outside reinforcement.

Congo isn’t the only captive animal known to create art. Koko the gorilla and her gorilla companion, Michael, painted. Sometimes they painted objects or companions (such as a dog); other times they painted from their imaginations. We know this because both gorillas could communicate through sign language and often titled their work, which allowed their caregivers to know what their art might represent. For example, Michael named a painting of a bouquet of pink flowers “Stink Pink More,” and he titled a dynamic splatter of brown splotches tinged with black and green “Earthquake.”

Orangutans also appear to enjoy making art. Wattana, a female orangutan living at the Botanical Garden Zoo in Paris, prefers to work in fiber. She excels at knot-tying and uses her skills to create objects, adornments and installations. Her caregivers never showed her how to make a knot, nor did they reward her for doing so. Wattana ties single, double and triple knots, and combines them creatively to create simple weavings and macrame-like forms that sometimes incorporate beads and other objects. She so enjoys knotting that sometimes, like a human artist caught up in the creative flow, she prefers to work on her art rather than eat.

How do scientists assess these captive apes making art? Many dismiss the behavior because these animals were given the tools for art-making by their human caregivers, and a few were encouraged by trainers. Some scientists, however, believe that the apes demonstrate authentic creativity and even aesthetic sensibilities in their art. Regardless of which perspective one takes, it is clear these captive apes not only developed an interest in creative activities, but also derived pleasure from it and actively sought it out.

A painting by the late Congo, a chimpanzee

A bower, made by a male bowerbird; they appear to rework their creations until they get it just right

But creativity in non-human animals is not limited to those in captivity. Wild animals exhibit creativity, too. Charles Darwin wrote that some birds have “fine powers of discrimination” and in some instances could be shown to “have a taste for the beautiful.” The best-known wild animal artist in the wild—the bowerbird—builds creations that inspire scientists and philosophers to rethink the definition of art.

For millions of years, male bowerbirds have been building elaborate and visually striking “bowers” with twigs, leaves, nuts, flowers, fungi, moss, shells, insects and other materials, in order to impress females. Each bowerbird species has a unique template for building their bowers, but individuals improvise within the parameters of their species- specific design plan.

Some species build spires; others build arbor-like structures, platforms or avenues. One species, the satin bowerbird, has an especially strong preference for the color blue, and collects blue petals, shells, feathers and human-made objects such as building materials. If there is a shortage of blue material, he sometimes crushes fruit pulp to make blue “paint,” which he then applies to his bower, occasionally using a piece of soft bark as a brush.

Bowerbirds—who can take as long as a month to complete a bower—arrange and rearrange their materials as obsessively as any human artist. During their bower building, the males appear to step back, consider and seemingly judge their own creations, deciding what looks right and what still needs work. This behavior has led some scientists and philosophers to surmise that these birds have an aesthetic sensibility.

Animal creativity isn’t limited to visual art. Everyone knows that birds sing and dance, but until recently, scientists believed that birds engaged in these activities solely to win mates. But recent research suggests that birds sometimes sing and dance not just to attract mates, but for the pleasure of the creative act. Humpback whales appear to have a creative streak, too. Scientists discovered that their songs even contain organized phrases that rhyme.

As we begin a new year, let’s set aside time to indulge our own creativity. From the knotwork of orangutans to the rhyming songs of whales reverberating through the oceanic depths, the creative impulse courses through all of us.

Excerpted and adapted in part from Inside Animal Hearts and Minds by Belinda Recio (Skyhorse 2017)

BELINDA RECIO, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, Massachusetts, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.

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