The Rhino Returns

“Durer’s Rhino” by Graham Ansell

When Graham Parker Ansell was 19 years old, he put an aluminum rhinoceros in a red wagon and wheeled it to the foot of Canyon Road. He’d created the rhino himself, with Durer’s famous woodcut as a guide and the molten ashes of a dying relationship as a forge. It was a glowing beast that rested on its belly as though its enormous plates of armor had become too heavy to bear.

One of Graham’s first stops was at Canyon Road Contemporary Art where he asked then-owners Bob and Debbi Brody if they’d like to put the rhino on their lawn.

“They told me I should come back when I had more things to show,” Graham says. “That I should build up a body of work.”

Graham walked his rhino all the way to the top of Canyon and back down again. Legend has it that he collected a trail of curious gallery owners along the way (full disclosure: this tidbit isn’t from Graham, who laughed aloud when he heard it). When he passed CRCA again, Bob was waiting on the porch.

“He said, ‘I’m so glad you still have the rhino! That was crazy of us,'” recalls Graham. “‘This is going to be our showpiece.'” That was six years ago. The rhino sold soon after, but gallery goers have been asking about it ever since.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact start of Graham’s career as a sculptor. Perhaps it was when, as a young child, he took to collecting shiny metal objects that he called “S.M.O.”s. Or maybe it began with the “fake taxodermied animal” (complete with peg-leg) that he built for his brother.

Graham’s first formal introduction to sculpture came at his Albuquerque high school. His art teacher pulled together three students, the minimum number for an official class, and taught a course on sculpture that would change Graham’s life. Their final project was “The Battle,” a grand assemblage of more than 200 sculptures-turned-soldiers (or vice versa) that they placed in a moonscape of sand and lava rocks.

Back then, Graham was working mostly in ceramics.  “A huge, huge problem for me was that shit would blow up during the firing process,” he says. “That really pissed me off.” After graduation he moved to New York with his girlfriend, and then to Portland with his brother, and then to Tucumcari  to attend a fine art program at Mesalands Community College in 2005. He’d taken a two-week workshop on metalwork at Mesalands a year before, and fell in love. It was a material that would never shatter, that he could polish to shiny, seamless perfection.

German Renaissance master Albrecht Durer did his “Rhinoceros” print based on a vague note and sketch of an animal he’d never seen before. Graham had always been fascinated by the work, and used it in graffiti art he created with his high school girlfriend. Just as he was learning to cast, their relationship was ending. He decided to create the tired rhino as a symbol of letting go.

The process seems perfect for such a shift in identity: you start with an object, create a mold of it out of rubber, pour wax in the mold, carve and perfect the wax positive, coat the wax in a ceramic shell, melt the wax out and finally fill the ceramic mold with metal.

“It comes out as ugly as sin,” says Graham. Then the polishing begins. “If anyone can see a scratch on it, that just screams out to me. I want to get all that effort to be invisible.”

Graham says “Rhino” is meant to conjure the feeling of presque vu– the “almost seen.”

“To me, that means what’s on the tip of your tongue,” he explains. “What’s so close to real that you can’t even express it. I think artists are making an attempt to express it.” For Durer, that was a mysterious creature called a rhinoceros. Graham wanted to bring the “almost seen” creature into the third dimension.

Last week, Graham Parker Ansell pulled up to Canyon Road Contemporary Art with an aluminum rhino in the back of his car.  He’s reproduced “Rhino” far more than any other piece and sold it from coast to coast, but another version of it has never made it back to Canyon Road Contemporary. That is, until owner Nancy Leeson commissioned one.

“Delivering this piece felt the best since delivering that one in 2006,” says Graham. Despite its heartrending origins, the piece has been quite a blessing in his life. He recently used his rhino funds to build a house in Albuquerque. “Every time I try to steer my life in a another direction, it steers me back to the art world. It just feels like yeah, I’m Graham, this is part of the deal.”

CHECK IT OUT: Here’s Graham Ansell’s page on CRCA, and here’s a shot of one of his latest pieces, a Glyptodon piggy bank. Stay tuned for more on that!

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