Paso Robles artist Frank Armitage uses art to help silverback gorillas

Watching a documentary about the animal inspired this Paso Robles artist to use his talent to help

Special to The TribuneMarch 1, 2010 

When Frank Armitage heard a cry to help some silverback gorillas, he didn’t miss a beat in going to their aid.

The call didn’t come via the Congo, however. “I just happened to see a documentary on gorillas,” Armitage said. “The whole thing impressed me. I just had to do something about it.”

Armitage offered assistance in the form of what he does best: art.

A dozen or so oil pencil drawings similar to those that he donated to the cause are now on view in Studios on the Park, where Armitage shares studio space with Nancy Becker.

So far, he has sent 18 works of art to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Atlanta and will be donating more to the Center for the Great Apes in Florida.

“There’s lots of good causes in the world that need help, but these guys kind of fall through the cracks,” he said. “I’ll do the work and let them market it” by using the images on T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters or auctioning off the originals.

Armitage didn’t have to travel to the heart of darkness to research his subject. The only apes he’s ever seen in the flesh were at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Although Armitage now lives in Paso Robles, Disney is a place where he feels at home.

Starting in 1952, the Australian-born Armitage worked at Walt Disney Studios in animation backgrounds and layout for many feature films, including “Peter Pan,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Jungle Book.”

For his current project, the artist researched books and photos to “sort of program my brain with gorilla and orangutan images,” he said. The results fall somewhere between paintings and drawings and range from 16 by 20 inches to 4 by 5 feet. “I call them sketches because they’re not elaborate, but they’re beyond what most people call a sketch.”

Armitage has used his talents in numerous ways, including mural paintings on public buildings in Mexico in the late 1940s. After retiring from Disney, he studied acupuncture and Chinese medicine and volunteers in rural Mexico with the Flying Doctors.

He’s especially gratified that a medical lecture series at the University of Illinois is named after him.

When he contacted the university to see if they’d be interested in medical illustrations that he’d rendered as a personal challenge, “They were overjoyed,” he said.

The drawings, which were gathering dust in his garage, are distinct. “I went into it kind of breaking all the rules,” Armitage recalled. “I didn’t use realistic colors. I used color to create a mood, the type of thing that you’d get involved with illustrating film,” complete with stage lighting. His intent was to make a lasting impression on the viewers, more than from looking at a book.

Armitage was inspired to create the one-of-a kind renderings while wandering around a 20th Century Fox set where he was doing the production illustration for the Academy Award winning “Fantastic Voyage.” That movie title could easily describe this artist’s life.

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