KC Library Celebrates Ivan the Gorilla’s Artwork


Karen Lovett

Joyce Barr, one of Ivan’s former keepers, with an example of his artwork now on display at the KC library Photo: Karen Lovett, KP News

Ivan the gorilla was a familiar beloved attraction at the B & I shopping center in Tacoma for 27 years. He died Aug. 21, 2012 in the Atlanta zoo at the age of 50. Ivan’s artwork is now on display at the Key Center Library through October.

Palmer Lake resident Joyce Barr was a keeper for Ivan at the B & I before his transfer to Atlanta in 1994. Barr’s art collection and photographs provide a unique glimpse into his life.

Ivan was born in 1962 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The 6-month old western lowland gorilla was imported as a pet by Earl Irwin, co-owner of the B & I with Ruben and Lois Johnson. Ivan was raised as a child in the Johnsons’ home during the early years of his life. He was moved to a 40-by-40 foot enclosure at B & I at the age of 3 when his size and destructive behavior made it too difficult to keep him at home. Being raised as part of a family came to an end.

Barr worked at the B & I pet shop for six years. “I’d go down and feed him peanuts,” she said. “I was his keeper for three years. Tonya Hill was his head keeper. He’d show so much of his personality when he got to know you. I got to know his moods. He’d pull his hair out when he was nervous. Eventually I could look him in the eye. I could tell if he was happy. I could see it in his face.”

His keepers gave him paper and paints so he had something to do. “People would order paintings in certain colors,” Barr said. “One lady wanted a painting for her dad in Seahawk colors. Some paintings have lip prints or a fingerprint. He painted with his finger or a paper towel. His hair is in some and straw in most. If he didn’t want to paint, he’d push them back through the bars. If you still tried to get him to paint, he’d tear them up.

“His last Christmas, we found the biggest tree we could find,” Barr said. “It went all the way to the ceiling at B & I. He got lots of presents, a hat and nine big phone books. Ivan loved phone books. He loved to tear out the pages one at a time. By the next day, he’d torn every page out.”

Animal rights groups began protesting Ivan’s captivity in 1987. He was moved first to Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, then to Zoo Atlanta in October 1994. “Tonya went with him on the plane,” Barr said. “I followed on a red-eye flight. They rented us a Lincoln Town Car and took us out to dinner at night. They wouldn’t let us stay with him through the transition and they didn’t want to know what he liked or didn’t like.”

Barr went back to see him seven years later. “He recognized me and was very mad at me,” Barr said. “He wouldn’t look at me. Now, I’m a caregiver for people, but there’s something about animals. It’s harder to let them go.”

Barr will give a presentation including a question-and-answer session about her experiences with Ivan Thursday, Oct. 13, at 7 p.m. at the Key Center Library.