In case you’ve been blindly walking through life with no idea of what’s going on, tonight is the National Zoo’s last party of the summer, Zoo Uncorked. Combining animals, wine and art, it’s the kind of gathering that could only happen at a place as magical as the zoo. To get you excited and ready for tonight’s event, we called up local sculptor Paul Rhymer, who will be selling his impressionistic animal sculptures at the event.
A nature lover, birder and sculptor extraordinaire, we chatted with Rhymer about his taxidermy background, his life-size polar bear sculptures and how it feels to work with huge institutions like the National Zoo. Take a break, wade through Rhymer’s world and grab some tickets to the party tonight. We’ll see you there.
How did you get into sculpting?
I’ve been an artist my whole life. I did a lot of painting and drawing in my early years and I thought I would be an illustrator. I got a job at the Smithsonian in 1984, designing and illustrating brochures for the Smithsonian Travel Associates. That was in an office called the Office of Exhibits Central, which is still around, it’s Smithsonian Exhibits. As I was working there I pretty quickly moved over into the model shop, doing taxidermy and model making. I had experience doing it as a kid because my dad was a taxidermist. So I spent a whole career, 25 years, doing that at the Smithsonian. In the 90s my personal career gradually moved on from painting and illustrating to sculpting. So, I went at that really hard starting in the late 90s. Then when I retired in 2010, I was going at it full time. I was using all my spare time to do that and that’s what I do now.
When you were transitioning from painting and illustrating into sculpture, did you have a mentor that helped you navigate the field? Or did you just dive into it?
In the taxidermy world, there are a lot of people who see sculpture as the natural evolution of your art form. You already have a lot of knowledge about animals and you already have a lot of knowledge about sculpture, because you have to be able to sculpt if you’re going to be a taxidermist. So, a lot of taxidermists end up doing that. That was my initial “A Ha!” moment where I decided I should do that… It would be cool.
The other thing about the taxidermy industry as well as the museum industry is that… When I was working at the museum I had curators, designers, writers, I had bosses telling me what to do. Critiquing things. In the taxidermy world, most of the community is really open to sharing information, helping other people. There are a lot of competitions where you get critiques on how to do things better. So I was kind of in this community and in the mindset of doing that sort of stuff. I already had people who were very good at sharing information. It was a natural, organic, thing for me. There were people who I was inspired by, artists both past and present. Some of those people I’ve gotten to know. Of course, the old masters are people that I still admire. With the advent of social media, there’s an incredible expansion of exposure in what’s going on in the art world. Via Facebook and Instagram, I am exposed to so many amazingly talented people. It’s an incredible resource.
When did your dad start teaching you how to be a taxidermist?
My dad had his own taxidermy shop. When I was a kid, as soon as I was old enough to go downstairs and work in the shop, I did. Basically, as soon as I was old enough to hold a knife. So, at six or seven-years-old, I’m down there dinking around… And then throughout my teenage years when I could actually be useful and actually accomplish something. As a teen, I never really thought that I would make a career out of it. When I talk to young artists and when I talk to school groups, I tell them all the time, don’t ever look down at any experience or any opportunity you have because you have no idea what experience you have now will help you in the future.
Did you enjoy working with him as a kid? Or was it more like a household chore?
I don’t know if this is the way it is now. It seems like everything I knew as a kid is not the way it is now. My understanding was, when I was a kid, most kids wanted to do what their dad did. So I was pretty eager to do that. Then you’re hanging out down there and you’re hanging out with all the guys. So it was a guy thing and whenever kids could hang out with the adult crowd, that was cool. I actively wanted to be apart of that. I was already creating anyway. I’ve always been drawing and that was just another outlet for the creative process.
What did you want to do when you were a kid?
When I was a kid I thought I’d just be a taxidermist, but pretty quickly realized that I had more desires to paint or draw. My mother is a painter, so I’d been around that and I was okay at that. Then, as I got into high school and college, I thought that it was more practical to be an illustrator, so that’s how I leaned into it.
Were your paintings nature inspired? Have you always been an outdoorsy person?
Yeah. When I wasn’t painting or drawing I was fishing and hunting and catching turtles or whatever. I’ve always kind of done that and that’s still what I do.
Does your environment influence what you decide to sculpt?
Yes, I spend a lot of time, and most of my clients, are out west. I sell very little sculpture this side of the Mississippi. When you emailed me initially, I was on the road doing a little tour in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico. I sell a lot of my stuff out there and I spend all winter at an art show in Arizona, so I get there right after New Years and I’m there until early to mid April. As a result of being out west and spending a lot of time in the desert, I do a lot of that kind of stuff because one, that’s something I’m learning about and I enjoy. Two, it’s something that my clients want. It’s not a strictly commercial decision, although sometimes they really are… Like I really need to sculpt another Road Runner. I’m in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas and those guys want Road Runners. I’d sculpt them anyway because they’re cool, but certain things I do for my clients.
What is your process like when you’re working on a new sculpture? How much research / planning goes into it?
Every situation is different, but a lot of pieces I’ll just ruminate on, think about, sketch and write notes for months, if not years. I have lists of things that I am thinking about. With the advent of phones you can just make these great little lists that never go away. I have lists of ideas. I’ll think about it and write it down, or maybe I’ll get the title piece and then I’ll formulate what it’s going to be. I might think about it for a couple of years or I might start it and put it a side. I’ve had several pieces that I’ve started and put aside for five, six, seven or eight years before I finished them. Those are the pieces that end up being the ones I like the most, because most of the work is done by the time I start sculpting. I’ve already really figured out what I want to do and since I’ve been a sculpture for so many years, I don’t have to figure out how to sculpt it. For me, the most important thing about art and the most important thing about the pieces I want to do is the things I want to communicate and the things I want to express. The most important part of that is the idea. Once the idea has formulated, then I just do it. Or, I have an initial idea, I start it and it doesn’t seem like the right thing to do, so I put the piece aside and think about it for another six months… or two years… or five years and realize what it needs to be.
For example, I wanted to do a raven. Two friends of mine, we get together every year and we rotate whose studio we’re sculpting in. We’ve been doing that for 10 or 11 years. The first year we decided to do it, I said, “Let’s all sculpt the same thing.” So we’re together for a long weekend and we’re going back and forth critiquing each others stuff, or sometimes sculpting on each others stuff. So I said, “Let’s all sculpt a raven.” So I got a raven pretty roughed out by the end of the weekend, but I wasn’t really sure what it wanted to be, so I brought it home, put it on my shelf and didn’t touch it. That was in 2007. In 2013, I got an opportunity to be sculptor in residence down at Brookgreen Gardens, which is the biggest collection of figurative sculpture in the country. I was down there and thought, “I’m gonna finish that raven.” It was during the government shutdown and my wife still worked at the Smithsonian. We were concerned about losing income and what was going on. Things were uncertain. I was walking around and this place has an amazing collection of sculptures. So one morning I was walking around thinking about the government shutdown and thinking about how ridiculous it was and how stupid politicians are. They’re not listening to one another, they’re not working together. I was also just absorbing all of this beautiful art, so when I stepped into the studio to sculpt the raven, I had unconsciously worked out that it’s not one raven, it had to be two ravens. It need to be a conversation. In the next five to seven days I put together that piece and it’s still one of my favorite sculptures I’ve ever done. The sculpting time was about ten days, but the actual time was over six years.
That’s being smart about the creative process and having the luxury of not being rushed. I’m working on a life-size polar bear right now. It has to be done by the first week of December because it needs to be delivered in March and installed in May. I don’t have the luxury of having that thing sit around my studio for a year or two. I have a deadline. So that’s a completely different situation. It was a commission, it’s not something I was inspired to do, sculpt a seven foot by seven foot bear. So every case is different.
Quick question about this life-size polar bear, how many life size pieces have you done?
At this point most of my pieces are life-size. I rarely do things that are not life-size. Now, I just finished a family of life-size quails and a pair of life-size cottontails, which are not a very big deal. Artistically, I find it more interesting to do the bigger pieces and they just sell better. After the recession of 2008, the whole art market changed and I was kind of already moving towards that anyway. It was just a lucky guess.
You’ve crafted a couple different pieces, not only for the National Zoo, but other zoos in the country. What’s working with the zoo like?
In the case of the National Zoo sculptures, they’re things I’d already done. So they were not done specifically for the zoo, but I have done things for zoos. For example, a couple of years ago I did a pair of snow monkeys, which are also called Japanese macaques. I had to tighten it up a little bit. They didn’t want it to be so gestural, and so the style was a little tighter. It had to go by their curator and their director to get approval. Right now, I’m finishing up an electric eel for the National Zoo, so that’s really really tight. That’s very detailed. I brought the clay to the zoo and I had the curator look at it and I talked to the designers and the caretaker to get approval and suggestions and what not. In that regard, that one was a bit more of a model, but it will be cast in bronze. The cool thing about it is we’re making it in two pieces, and they don’t connect, so if a visitor touches the head and the tail at the same time, we’ve got hardware so that the whole piece will shake, because it’s an electric eel.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re going to be doing a Zoo Uncorked this year?
I’ll be bringing some pieces. I’m trying to, from a completely practical point of view, have things in a variety of price ranges, so there will be small, medium and large. Just a variety of different things. Mostly birds… but a little bit of everything. A lot of times I do demonstrations where I’m sculpting or I’m doing something else, but I don’t really think we have enough time with that particular program to get involved to that extent. I think we’ll just have the sculptures there and we’ll be chatting about it, and hopefully we’ll be selling some so we can make some money for my next project, make some money for the FONZ projects. There’s winners all around.