In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a thousand-pound rhino living on the rocky land beside the Jones Falls River. It is a beautiful gray creature, awesome, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and flat out surreal, positioned amid an urban setting.
People are starting to discover the beast, as they hike, bike, make out or smoke up, near the bucolic stream. “Wait, is that a rhino?” one guy asked himself aloud; another woman snapped a photo with her cell and texted a message.
To be clear: The rhino isn’t real, but looks so from afar. Chad Tyler, 29, exhibit designer at the National Aquarium, placed it there this spring. The artist sculpted the piece from foam and concrete, over a period of patient weeks, setting up studio in a Ruxton barn. Fishbowl talked to Chad about his process and vision for the unique, eco-conscious project he calls, “There’s a Rhinoceros in the River.”
FB: So, how did you become inspired to build this rhino for Baltimore?
CT: The Rhino was born of an idea originally conceived in the car while driving back to Chicago with Jowita (yo-v-ta), my amazing fiancé. Ever since we were introduced to the lower Jones Falls River valley when we moved here ten months ago, I have been in love with it. I have always been drawn to these landscapes that almost don’t seem to fit into their context, that challenge your expectations of the natural environment, and where the intersection of the manmade and nature is so seamless and integrated. Think Northerly Island in Chicago, a former airstrip, famously bulldozed overnight at the bequest of Mayor Daley. The airstrips are piled on the edge of the island, rebar, concrete, and all. Some of the old concrete lighting foundations still exist, some of the taxi-ways can be found buried by the tall grasses grown through its cracked pavement. …To me, the Jones Falls River is so much more interesting because of all its layers. Because it is this living thing, moving about the concrete rubble strewn about its banks, banging against stone walls meant to contain it–[flowing] beside and through old mills that borrowed its water to operate, underneath bridges built high to avoid being swept away…and eventually 70-feet beneath an eight-lane highway that borrows the rivers fluid design. A river seemingly obscured from view and unknown to many. The intersection of culture, history, and industry is great inspiration to me.
Having spent a number of years designing exhibits and experiences built around animals, water, and conservation, I have come to think a lot about the question of why people visit zoos and aquarium to view these animals. What is about this facilitated experience of nature that brings audiences back, time and time again? Why are we so often wrapped up, in love, with the iconic and exotic animals from the other side of the globe? I found myself in the library looking at the history of Baltimore, the Jones Falls River and the industrial development on its banks. I began to connect an interesting chronological correlation between the foundation of the Baltimore Zoo and the expansion of the cotton mills after the Civil War. The mills’ rapid growth and increased demand on the river, the manipulation of its banks, the construction of higher bridges; a certain destruction or manipulation of nature, and in kind a newfound desire to view exotic nature through the lens of a zoo, was really interesting to me.
Wait, why a rhino?!
My original idea was to sculpt or replicate a number of the world’s iconic animals. The panda bear, the giraffe, the hippo, the moose, a congress of antelope, the zebra, the rhinoceros, etc. convening on the banks of the Jones Falls as if to discuss the state of things. With obvious limitations I [singled out] the rhinoceros, the third largest terrestrial mammal, a seemingly solitary creature, built strong and yet possessing a certain compassion in its eye, almost sympathetic. I love some of the myth behind the rhino: Supposedly [adept] at detecting a fire, it runs into the forest and heroically stomps it out — a guardian to its neighbors.
What was your sculptural process like?
I began the process of sculpting the rhinoceros by first making a scale model out of plasticine, an oil-based clay. I then translated the model to a giant block of expanded polystyrene foam also known as EPS foam in a good friend’s barn in Ruxton. I basically whittled the big block of foam with a 16-inch hand saw, referencing back to the model, until I got it right. Once the form was complete, I coated it in a custom mix of glass-fiber-reinforced concrete to seal it and to create the details, color and texture.
What was the project’s hardest challenge?
Definitely the process of transporting it to the river and installing it. Once I finished with the concrete, I split the whole thing into three separate pieces. With the help, in total, of 15 volunteers across three evenings, we managed to move the pieces to the site, down a root-strewn, rocky slope, down a five foot flood wall, and across a hundred feet of boulder and gravel-laced river wash!
What do you hope viewers take away?
First and foremost, my hope with this project is to draw a smile to the face of the passersby. My hope is that once this happens, they may [stop and] see something they haven’t noticed before. I hope the project might encourage some to think differently about the river and our relationship to it… I would love if it has the ability to encourage some of the viewers to become advocates or stewards of the watershed through involvement in cleaning and protecting the river with an organization like Blue Water Baltimore. Getting involved by joining a trash pick-up event, an invasive species clearing day, or maybe by marking the storm drains on your block can help protect the watershed and continue to build an enduring relationship with the river.