It didn’t take long for the intended demographic to show its collective affection for Robert Bliss’ gorilla sculpture once it was unveiled at the Franklin Park Zoo.
“John Linehan, the president and CEO of the zoo, unveiled it and he told the kids they could touch it,” says Bliss, referring to the official unveiling of the relief sculpture. “They swarmed it. One little boy kissed it on the lips, so I thought it was a success. I felt humbled that all these kids were benefiting from it.”
All of which was part of the goal with the 23-inch by 18-inch sculpture of the gorilla head created and donated by Bliss to the Franklin Park Zoo. Cast in bronze by Skylight Studios of Woburn and officially unveiled in April, the sculpture was mounted three feet above the floor in the Tropical Forest building at Franklin Park to give children with vision impairments the opportunity to feel a gorilla they couldn’t otherwise experience.
That point was driven home pretty quickly when Bliss encountered a young girl and her guardian after the official unveiling of the piece.
“There was a grandmother there with a little girl sitting in a stroller; it was heart wrenching,” explains Bliss. “She walked up to us and it turned out she wanted to take our picture; the little girl is legally blind and had [multiple sclerosis], and she really appreciated being able to touch the gorilla. I thought, ‘Wow, that is amazing. You work on a piece of art, you try to make it the most realistic and the best it can be, and then you get the other side of the picture where you really appreciate that she was glad to be able to touch it.’”
The moment was the culmination of a year-and-a-half’s worth of work for Bliss, who operates out of Bliss Studios in Gloucester and specializes in handmade ceramic tiles. He initially was inspired to donate a piece to the zoo after seeing work another artist had donated to Franklin Park; during the same trip, he was inspired by an experience he had watching Rockport native Brandi Baitchman – the Senior Zookeeper at Franklin Park – interact with one of the gorillas at the zoo.
“I wanted to do something to help the gorillas because I empathized with them,” says Bliss. “I wanted to depict this massive and gentle creature. No child is going to go in there and see the portrait and get scared; that’s a friendly gorilla.”