No matter what you think about the Catholic Church, the “Chimp Pope” image (at left) by figurative/narrative artist Nathaniel Gold probably holds your attention and gives you pause about the latest hullabaloo. You can see a color, glossy version of the chimp pope on page 34 of Gold’s book, The Chimpanzee Manifesto, (Jessian Press, 2009). I am pleased to have purchased a signed, numbered copy of this book, easy to buy online.
A scientist introduced me to Gold’s art, not a hipster artist nor a museum-hound. I never would have seen the chime pope, nor my other favorites in Gold’s Manifesto, including chimp cellist (“Strings”), the Degas-esque “Dancer,” chimp “POW,” and “Monkey Mantle,” if it weren’t for Vancouver-based evolutionary anthropologist Eric Michael Johnson’s “Primate Diaries” blog, published by Scientific American where I’m an editor.
Many intellectual blogs focus on either science or art (or some other aspect of culture), but Johnson and Gold have forged an unusual, possibly unique, collaboration in the past year. Every one of Johnson’s posts is illustrated by an original piece of art by Gold, created in his Long Island, N.Y., studio. The partnership evolved from a recent, well-intentioned possible act of online theft perpetrated by Johnson for a non-porn scientific post he prepared on penis spines. (Seriously, you can learn a lot about evolution by reading this essay.)
If you do read the essay, it will become clear immediately why Johnson entered these words in a search engine to locate a suitable illustration for his essay: “chimp pope.” Up popped Gold’s painting by that title from The Chimpanzee Manifesto. “I absolutely loved it,” Johnson says. The post went viral and put the scientist in touch with the artist. It’s unclear if Johnson contacted Gold before or after publishing the post with Gold’s artwork in it. Some artists would be angry if it were after, given the difficulty faced in obtaining payment for re-uses of their work. But Gold was wisely flattered that someone found any use for his work, so he sent Johnson a copy of The Chimpanzee Manifesto and the collaboration was born–Gold would create original images for Johnson’s blog posts going forward.
“I realized that he was doing with images what I was trying to do with my writing,” Johnson says of Gold’s ink and acrylic work featuring chimpanzees. “He had an amazing ability to simply and elegantly provide commentary on various aspects of human nature through his depictions of anthropomorphized apes.”
The pair devised a modest revenue-sharing plan (blogging only brings in so much money by itself, for most) and went on to create more than 20 “Primate Diaries” posts for the next seven months. Gold and Johnson met in person for the first time in January at the annual ScienceOnline gathering of science bloggers, in Raleigh, N.C.
Gold typically pays his bills via illustrations for print publications such as national newspapers and local publications in the U.S. Telling the primatology and other stories of chimps and using chimps to comment on social situations in human life has been his passion, largely unpaid. Working online, the “now medium,” means that Gold has to turn around illustrations for Johnson’s posts quickly at the end of a day of higher-paying work. That is, Gold pulls all-nighters and Johnson patiently waits for Gold’s original illustration before publishing his completed posts.
As more and more readers move from print to tablets or laptop computers, Gold is keen for artists and designers to work more directly with writers and to help blog posts and other online stories pop visually on digital devices. “Many bloggers think about images as an afterthought, using something because it is available,” Gold says. “I believe that it is important for us in an online creative community to compete with print because we are the future and we are the same, and we must realize that for way more than a century, print did things a certain way. So if we want to own our creative destiny, this is the time. But we need to give the respect to our work the way it has been done for so long. This is not e-publishing versus print. This is just the next step in the evolution of communication.”
Gold and Johnson agree that their type of partnership is also a move in the right direction for science communications. Bloggers could draw from a small stable of artists that they could use from time to time. And such collaborations combine two types of media, thereby enhancing the appeal of a web site or story and generating more interest in both the site and the work of the artist and writers. Johnson says, “It’s an all around win-win.”