"MY FRIEND KOKO - THE 22 STONE GORILLA"
I had been thoroughly briefed before meeting my subject: don't touch her; don't stare at her; definitely do not meet her gaze. Although rarely nervous when I set out to paint a portrait, on this occasion I did feel some trepidation.
She sat waiting for us in her living quarters. I avoided looking directly at her but could see she was gazing intently at me. I sat down slowly on the veranda, avoiding sudden movements, and Dr Penny Patterson introduced us. "This is Richard Stone from England and he is going to draw you. You remember? We showed you his pictures."
Before arriving I had sent a catalogue of my work. On its cover was my 1992 portrait of the Queen in ceremonial scarlet robes, and it had obviously made an impression on my latest sitter.
Koko stood, picked up her red blanket and draped it across her. She climbed on to her big blue plastic drum and, drawing herself up to her full 5ft height, declared: "Koko, Queen. Koko, Queen." I took this as a sign of approval.
Koko is a 35-year-old lowland gorilla. As a mature female, she weighs 22 stone and has the strength of six men. From a very early age she has been trained by Stanford University scientist Dr Patterson and her team to 'talk' with the sign language used by the deaf, and to understand spoken English. She has a vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and understands about 2,000 English words.
She was given IQ tests several times when she was younger and scored between 70 and 95, where 100 is considered normal for humans. Her carers insist she is not, however, a 'genius' gorilla, just typical for her species.
It was my 12-year-old son William who first told me about Koko. My wife, Rhonda, is American so William has spent a lot of time in the States where Koko is well known as the subject of a bestselling children's book.
William has long followed her progress on her website, and when he learned that The Gorilla Foundation, which cares for and studies Koko, was trying to raise $1million to continue its research and to facilitate a move to larger premises, he thought I might be able to help. In 2004 my portrait of Lady Thatcher was sold at auction to raise £256,000 for the Conservative Party. Could I do the same for Koko?
I was only too happy to, so William emailed the Foundation and last April he, Rhonda and I were picked up from our San Francisco hotel and driven to Koko's wooded enclosure some miles outside the city. Before we left the car, we were told to walk softly and keep our voices down: gorillas have very sensitive hearing.
At the Foundation offices we met Dr Patterson and the rest of the staff. We were told how to conduct ourselves and given surgical facemasks to protect Koko from germs. Then we were led to her enclosure where she was waiting for us. We sat on a veranda, separated from Koko by a barred screen. Behind her was the covered area where she lives and sleeps, and this leads into an enormous wooded compound where she can romp to her heart's content.
What a truly magnificent beast she is. Her fur is thick and lustrous and she has a wonderfully expressive face with the most beautiful, deep-set eyes, like liquid amber. Koko launched into her impersonation of the Queen and, even though we knew she was a highly intelligent animal, I think we were all a little taken aback. She seemed to be in excellent humour.
We had been told she thrived on compliments so, after exchanging greetings with Koko listening to our words and Dr Patterson interpreting her signs for us, we launched into a charm offensive, praising her effusively for her great beauty. She appeared to bask in the adulation.
We knew she likes to look at pictures so William had brought a scrapbook of photographs of himself and his friends. She held the book up to the bars and pointed to William in a photograph and then to William himself. Gesturing to her blanket, she told us red was her favourite colour, and she showed us some of her toys. It was a remarkable meeting and the allotted 20 minutes flew by.
After lunch, I returned with Dr Patterson. This time we went into an ante-room adjoining Koko's quarters. We were still separated by bars. I was very conscious of the necessity to keep my eyes cast down: eye contact could be interpreted as an attempt to dominate. Koko gestured for me to move towards the bars and Dr Patterson waved me forward. Koko reached through and very gently tugged at my facemask.
"She wants you to take it off,' said Dr Patterson. I removed it. Koko studied my face and then made another signal. "She wants you to lie down next to the bars." I lay down. Slowly and carefully Koko extended an arm through the bars and then, almost tenderly, laid the back of her hand on my chest. Dr Patterson interpreted: "She sees you as a friend." But it wasn't really necessary - it was already obvious to me what the gesture meant.
All the while I was showering Koko with compliments and she actually started purring: a low, soft sound from the back of her throat, just like an ecstatic cat. She took my hand and guided it towards her face. It felt soft, smooth and warm. She very delicately blew at me, to signal her pleasure. I braced myself for a blast of gorilla halitosis but she has the sweetest-smelling breath and she loves showing off her excellent teeth.
I asked Koko if she could show me some of her favourite things. She turned to her toy basket and fished out a little rubber crocodile with its own set of gleaming white teeth. She brought it back to the bars and shyly offered it to me, so I made suitably appreciative comments. I saw this as my opportunity to do some drawing and did a very quick, crude sketch of the toy crocodile in a matter of seconds. I showed it to Koko and she was thrilled. She pointed at the drawing and pushed the crocodile towards it.
I then asked her to fetch something else and she pushed a cloth snake through the bars. She was equally pleased with my rough sketch of that. After about an hour Dr Patterson drew the session to a close.
So as not to overexcite Koko I did not return until two days later, and she was obviously pleased to see me. She gestured clearly that she wanted the door of the cage opened so I could enter. Dr Patterson confirmed with Koko: "you would like Mr Stone to come in with you?' "Yes,' she indicated.
It was an extraordinary moment. As the door was opened, Koko moved to the centre of her living quarters. I took a deep breath and gingerly stepped in, keeping low. Koko indicated that she wanted me to sit down, tapping the floor next to her. I tentatively sat cross-legged next to her, still not looking at her as Dr Patterson had instructed.
Koko pulled me very gently but firmly towards her, so I was turned to face her directly. She reached forward and took my head in both her hands. I tensed: her hands are about three times the size of mine, with knuckles the size of walnuts. They completely enveloped my head; this was a beast with the ability to tear me limb from limb with just as much ease as she might peel a banana. It was a moment I will not easily forget.
Slowly, she turned my head further and then gazed directly into my eyes for about ten seconds. I believe she was letting me know I was in no danger but at the same time establishing that she was the boss.
She traced her long fingers around my eye sockets. Reassuringly, I heard Dr Patterson say softly: "Be gentle, Koko." She was gentle. Then she touched my mouth and bared her teeth. "Ah, you want to see my teeth?' I said. I showed her, and once again she signalled her pleasure by very gently blowing on my face.
Encouraged, I launched into the kind of chat that I would have with any sitter, describing what I was going to do and talking her through it. I was having to draw at lightning speed but she seemed to understand, and stayed relatively still. I got the impression she was aware that, in gorilla terms, she was something of a looker.
I had brought two sketchbooks and she asked in sign language if she could have one, presumably because she wanted to do some drawing, which she had done in the past. I gave her a book and checked with Dr Patterson that it was OK to give her a pencil. Koko then put a finger up to her face and gazed out of the window: she was actually thinking about what she was going to draw. Then she turned away and shielded the book with her back and her arms so that I couldn't see what she was doing, just like any bashful schoolchild.
After some minutes of concentrated sketching, she turned round and showed me the book. She had quite clearly recreated the crocodile drawing I'd done two days ago. She had also done the snake, reproducing the swirly shape I had drawn.
Afterwards, we broke for lunch. When I returned I saw Koko had left some of the herbs she had been eating; a mixture of coriander, dill, mint and parsley which no doubt accounted for her fresh-breath confidence.
She picked up a handful of herbs and offered them to me, and Dr Patterson said: "She wants you to have them." She pulled off tiny pieces and pressed them against my mouth. I ate them.
Suddenly, as my sketching session came to a close, Koko turned her back to me and wiggled her shoulder blades. I looked at Dr Patterson. "She wants you to tickle her,' she said. I'm always keen to establish a rapport with a sitter but none of them has asked me to tickle them.
I pushed my hands into Koko's luxuriant black fur and gave her a good old scratch. She threw back her head and made a deep-chested, hearty guffaw sound, very like a human laugh only deeper, accompanied by a big grin. It was magical.
Our session was over. Dr Patterson told me not to say goodbye to her - Koko doesn't like goodbyes. So I simply left without fuss. The portrait will be finished in the next couple of months after another visit for one last sitting. Then the picture will be auctioned in America to raise funds.
My encounter with Koko was an extraordinary, humbling experience; awesome, in the most profound sense of the word. To be allowed to get so close to such an incredible animal and to communicate with her in a meaningful way is little short of life-changing. It made me reflect on the importance of the way we relate to the animals in our lives.
Dr Patterson told me that when Koko was shown a picture of a cowboy on a horse, she indicated: "Poor horse." When asked "why poor horse?' she gestured at the horse's head and signalled: "Mouth hurts."
On her birthday last July, I sent Koko a photograph of me in my Essex studio with the half-finished portrait. When Dr Patterson asked Koko what she thought of it, she indicated the words: "That fine, I have." I hesitate to put words into the mouth of so distinguished and delightful a sitter, but I like to think she means: "He's got me to a tee."
THE MAIL ON SUNDAY
24th March 2007