(ANIMAL CONNECTION) NEW YORK CITY — Alleviating grief from the death of a pet is never a simple task. For painter Allen Hirsch, an artistic light emerged from months of mourning his loss. Hirsch pays tribute to his former companion Benajmin, a capuchin monkey he rescued in South America, with portraits, photographs, and sculptures displayed across SoHo. In his interview, he describes his unexpected acquisition of the monkey and their unbreakable bond formed over 14 years of life together. Read on. — Global Animal
The New York Times, Joyce Wadler
Signs come and go above New York City diners and rarely are they tributes to anything but commerce. The aluminum portrait and larger-than-life photographs on the roof and adjacent to the restaurant La Esquina, at 106 Kenmare Street in SoHo, however, are something else entirely: an homage by the New York City painter Allen Hirsch to Benjamin, his capuchin monkey who died at the age of 14, that is as much a reflection of a broken heart as any light on Broadway. To Mr. Hirsch, who had cut holes in the ceiling of his loft so that Benjamin could run from room to room and had allowed Benjamin to play with his daughter when she was a child, the monkey was not a pet, but “a fellow creature I take care of.”
To others, he was a fugitive. A year and a half ago, The Daily News called Benjamin a “cheek-chomping monkey” after he bit a woman at the inn Mr. Hirsch and his wife operated in upstate New York. When the local authorities demanded that Benjamin be euthanized and tested for rabies, he and Mr. Hirsch disappeared, leading The Times Union of Albany to write that Benjamin “might be the most wanted monkey in the state.” (Might be? Was Son of Kong terrorizing motorists on the New York State Thruway that week?) Mr. Hirsch is now facing a civil suit by the woman who was bitten.
Benjamin, who was about 20 inches tall and weighed about seven pounds, died of cancer at a Florida animal sanctuary. Mr. Hirsch, who has created a Web site about Benjamin and the art he has made in the last year while mourning him (benjaminthemonkey.com), talked about the relationship.
Why are you putting up these pieces?
I had such an incredible epic love story with this creature. It spanned 14 years, even though it felt like 50 years, because we spent so much time together. He was dying in a box in a South American town where they kill monkeys, and I nursed him back to health. I became his mother, his father, his partner. Benjamin represented this primordial creature that sort of took me back to my elemental self. We were like two sides of the same creature. He was like the id: I brought out the human in him; he brought out the monkey in me. We had this connection which is hard to describe. I knew what he was feeling.
How could you know what he was feeling when he couldn’t speak?
He did speak. The other nice thing about the relationship was that language gets pared down to elemental expressions that reflect basic emotions. Benjamin had 12 basic sounds and could understand hundreds of English words, but for him, inflection was the most important thing. People said he had a real New York attitude about him. If we were driving and somebody cut me off, he would throw a little tantrum.
I gather many things in your home were broken.
That’s one of the ways I could tell if I had been out too long. Like one time, 10 years ago, I went to High Holiday services and I stayed for the whole service. Usually, I would take him to the synagogue — —
Wait, you’re kidding. They let you bring a monkey to the synagogue? What denomination was this, Reform?
And they were O.K. with having a monkey there?
Yes. Originally he used to help with turning on and off the lights on the Sabbath. He was sort of a Sabbath goy. But on the other hand, he was like a member of the synagogue.
And yet he was no angel. The Daily News called him a “cheek-chomping monkey.”
Well, unfortunately, because of the civil case, I can’t comment specifically. My lawyer is clamping down my jaw. I feel very upset about what happened, but generally regarding Benjamin’s reaction of self-defense, he was really a sort of a domesticated wild animal, but he had a wild reaction of self-preservation when he felt threatened.
What about the argument that monkeys are wild animals and shouldn’t be kept as pets?
As I said, I don’t consider him a pet, and I don’t advocate anybody having a monkey. It was a situation I fell into. Before meeting him, I never thought about having a monkey or exotic animal. Monkeys are genetically very close to humans. Humans are also very dangerous creatures.
After his death, you started working in his old room.
After he died, it became the only room I worked in. I had a lot of paintings in there, I had a memorial candle over the freezer where I had kept his body, I had a container with some of his hair and a container with some of my hair. I let my beard grow for six months as a parent does after the loss of a child — it’s a Jewish custom for mourning the loss of a child — and put it in a little container. Then I had a container with his hair.
His body was so beautiful that I didn’t ever want to cut off any hair, but I did. I had a body cast. Then his body cast fell off on the memorial candle, and it started a fire. I would say that was like Benjamin’s last little act of destruction.
I heard this strange sound at 4:30 a.m. and woke up immediately, and there was this huge wall of flames. I sort of jumped on it and put it out. I took pictures of the whole thing, and it looks like a burnt offering. It was a sign to me that it was time to move on.
How would you like people to respond when they see the piece you made about him?
I would like them to get a taste of what I and many others have felt about Benjamin, and maybe reflect on all creatures and that everybody needs a Benjamin. He was magical, and I would do anything for him. He gave me a kind of a beauty, and everybody should have something like that. I’m not saying anybody else should get a monkey; I wouldn’t recommend anybody to have a monkey. I wouldn’t recommend anybody to spend 14 hours a day in front of a canvas either. It was a story I fell into, and I had to follow through.
More New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/17/garden/the-new-york-painter-allen-hirsch-qa.html