For young artist Jessica Miller, Paignton Zoo’s Great Gorillas Project is a family affair. Her sister Lorriane is a gorilla keeper at the Zoo.
Jess, who also volunteers at Paignton Zoo, knows the Zoo’s five male lowland gorillas - Pertinax, Kiondo, Kivu, N’Dowe and Matadi - well. “I’ve always liked animals – maybe I got it from my big sister!”
Incredibly, she is entirely self-taught. “I started an art A-level, and they were very nice teachers, but I left.” She has her own impressionist style using brushes and sponging, building up paint to create a soft, realistic image.
So far Jess has done very little professional work. “Mostly I’ve done pictures for friends and people at the Zoo. This is by far my biggest challenge. I hope it could be my big break!”
She is painting her gorilla – called Skins – in Union Square Shopping Centre, Torquay. The sponsor is ATASS, based in Exeter, and Skins will be on show in the city during the summer. The idea for Skins came from Lorraine, who is a great source of support and encouragement. It features leopard, zebra, jaguar and elephant, among others.
What’s it like working on a giant gorilla model? “Reaching every last spot can be difficult, but actually painting on a three-dimensional, undulating surface is not as hard as I thought it would be. You get used to the curves!”
She would love to be a full-time professional wildlife artist.
“I am excited to be painting him and I’m looking forward to finishing him. It will be interesting to see him go out in public and eventually be auctioned off. At the moment I think of him as mine!”
The project is celebrating the 90th birthday of the region’s largest and best-known zoo, Paignton Zoo Environmental Park, which is a registered charity. It is also raising funds for gorilla conservation and a local community project.
Life-size model gorillas are being sponsored by businesses and community groups, painted in original designs by specially-commissioned artists and displayed in public, creating a unique art trail around Torbay and Exeter. For further information go to: www.greatgorillas.org.uk.