• 9 February 2023 6:59

THE RHINOCEROS PROJECT: an interview with Anne Beck and Michelle Wilson

Italiano (Italian)

*Featured photo: The Rhinoceros Embroidery, completed June 2018. Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

Anne Beck and Michelle Wilson are the creators of ‘The rhinoceros project’. The artists have brought the embroidered image of Durer’s rhinoceros to several communities, gathering many embroidery circles around them. A life-size version was used as a matrix to create delicate watermarks in handmade paper. With their fragile appearance, these light drawings lead us to reflect on the imminent disappearance of the rhinoceros, creating a dialogue around issues of loss and questioning the value systems in our societies. Embroidery, an intimate and meditative act, becomes collective, creating bonds between the participants; the theme of the rhino’s extinction opens the door to broader reflections on globalization and the urgency of changing human priorities.
“Together, through a shared sewing circle, a community is built”.

The Rhinoceros Project is a collaborative, participative art project initiated by Anne Beck and Michelle Wilson. Can you tell us more about your art practices?

We are both interdisciplinary thinkers who share an interest in art history, papermaking, and how environmental concerns are interwoven with socio-economic and political issues.

Anne’s creative practice arises from a deep curiosity and desire for understanding. She sees art-making as a tool for digesting and meditating on experiences – both singular and collective, local and universal. Her work takes form as paintings, textiles, books, collaborative installations, and social practice inquiries – all with a keen interest in the material research and storytelling behind them. She sustains a farm with her brother in Northern California where she tends and harvests plants for fiber, dyes, food, and healing.

Michelle Wilson’s work focuses on intersecting narratives, inviting viewers to consider a crossroads of ideas: politics and the environment, colonialism and natural history, language and how it informs thought, and the loss of diversity.  These narratives are not limited to only her imagery, materials, landscape, and location inform the work. Most recently she has begun to think of her practice as akin to a particle accelerator – sending beams of ideas to collide with one another to see what new ideas and directions can be found.

Joya the Greater One Horned Indian Rhinoceros, in whose presence we shared a sewing circle, Salina Kansas, June 2017 Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

How did your collaboration start and why?

Our collaboration began with a 2014 exchange on social media that went something like this:

Anne invited friends to a presentation of student artwork called “How is your Rhinoceros Inspiring You?” And Michelle commented, “Durer reference?”

From there began a long conversation that circled around the extinction of the Western Black Rhinoceros, the precarious status of the Northern White Rhinoceros, and the systemic causes of what is being called the 6th extinction. We wanted to join a larger conversation about shifting the values that hold these destructive systems in place.

The Rhinoceros Reading Room and Ephemera Collection, Ramons Tailor, San Francisco, CA, October 2016 Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

Can you explain why you choose Durer’s Rhino as a subject of your work?

As artists with backgrounds in printmaking and papermaking, we are familiar with Albrecht Durer’s woodblock, The Rhinoceros, as a significant and well-recognized print from art history.  When we began to discuss the extinction of the Western Black Rhinoceros, as well as the dramatic decline of the Northern White Rhinoceros, Durer’s print seemed a natural reference. There are two really provocative aspects of this print – the fact that Durer never saw a rhinoceros in real life, and the foreshadowing tale of the particular rhinoceros pictured.

The rhinoceros that inspired Durer’s print was originally a gift from Sultan Muzaffar Shah II, ruler of Gujarat, to representatives of Alfonso du Albuquerque, governor of Portuguese India, who had been sent north to negotiate further colonial efforts.  Albuquerque, in turn, re-gifted the rhinoceros to his king, King Manuel I of Portugal. The rhinoceros was loaded onto a ship and made the voyage around the continent of Africa to Lisbon, following the recently charted sea-faring route of Vasco da Gama.

The first rhinoceros in Europe since Roman times, news of its arrival travelled far and wide and it became a spectacular sensation. Wanting to win favor with Pope Leo X to continue his colonial expansion in Asia, King Manuel decided to send the rhinoceros to the Pope’s growing menagerie. And so, the rhinoceros was loaded onto another ship and began a voyage to Rome. The ship encountered a storm and capsized off the coast of La Spezia. Chained below deck, the rhinoceros sadly drowned.

Albrecht Durer, in his Nuremberg studio, capitalized on this moment, publishing a broadside of this sensational creature as a souvenir of sorts that was distributed by the thousands. Durer never saw the rhinoceros himself. He based his work on a description, a sketch, and his observational knowledge of other creatures. Despite inaccuracies in the image – the rhinoceros appears to be wearing armor, and has a horn on its shoulders – his work became emblematic of a rhinoceros’ appearance. Many more people saw the print than saw the actual rhinoceros – and it was included in printed Natural Histories for centuries following.

As the depiction of an early colonial displacement, Durer’s Rhinoceros also acts as a portal for conversation on myriad potent topics from empire building and trade to cosmic and elemental forces, celestial navigation, land & sea ownership, and so on.

The Rhinoceros Reading Room and Ephemera Collection, Ramons Tailor, San Francisco, CA, October 2016 Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

The process of creating this work is complex and extended over time, it implies a variety of mediums (from Durer’s print to embroidery, to watermark on paper), and it opens to participation. Can you explain the technical steps and how these elements contribute to the realization of the final work?

Our original plan was simply to make a watermark based on Durer’s Rhinoceros. As papermakers, we see watermarks as luminous, magical images, and a watermark of Durer’s Rhinoceros would suggest the print had vanished from the paper, leaving only a ghostly image behind.

As our idea for collaborating grew, we decided to make the watermark the size of an actual rhinoceros, and to make an edition of 6 watermarked sheets of paper in honor of the then-remaining Northern White Rhinoceros. Then the real technical questions began.

The Rhinoceros Embroidery and Watermark, Mendocino Art Center, November 2019 Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

A watermark in handmade paper is made through displacing pulp – so that the lines of the watermark are thinner than the rest of the paper. When held up to the light, the image appears. Historically, watermarks are made by sewing a design of thin, soldered wire onto the stiff surface of a wood & metal paper making mold. We needed to find a way to make a watermark the size of a rhinoceros that could be lighter-weight and portable.

After some tests, we discovered that embroidery thread sewn on muslin and draped across a mold would displace pulp, and thus, create a watermark. This gave us the idea of embroidering the rhinoceros on easily transportable fabric, and inviting people to help us in participatory sewing circles. With this in mind, we stretched a 9 x 11’ sheet of muslin on a wall and projected Durer’s print onto it. Using fabric pens, we traced the entire rhinoceros onto the muslin to have as a guide for the embroidery.

The Rhinoceros projected and traced onto the muslin fabric, with helpers, August 2016 Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project
Handmade Paper Pour at Shotwell Papermill, San Francisco California, August 2019: The pulp just poured and draining atop the embroidery inside the deckle box Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

During these initial tests, we discussed how to go about sewing such a large, complicated image. Initially, we conceived of this endeavor as something suited for an Artist-in-Residence project – sewing and pouring the handmade sheets of paper with one community – and applied for various opportunities. Every single residency we applied to rejected us.

After approximately fifty rejections, we decided to re-evaluate. We asked ourselves, what if the project traveled? And so, we began looking for partner sites that were interested in short-term public programming. In September of 2016, we offered our first public sewing circle, at the San Francisco Center for the Book’s annual Roadworks event.

And so, the embroidery phase of the project began. Both of us had learned to sew and embroider from our mothers, and for our initial project we stuck to simple running, outline and back-stitches to make solid lines on the front and the back of the fabric, to assure a clear watermark. People who joined us for our sewing circles could select the section of the image that they wanted to sew, as well as the colors and styles of their stitches. If they did not know how to sew, we offered them a simple lesson.

The Rhinoceros Embroidery, In Progress, March 2017 Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

It was fairly early on during this process of traveling to communities and sewing together that we realized the sewing circles themselves, and the conversations that occurred around them, were as important as the making of the watermark, and we didn’t want to rush it.

The rhinoceros embroidery took two years to complete. We visited sixteen different sites, most only for a day or two, although some were for a much longer duration. At the time of its completion, almost six hundred people had contributed to the embroidery.

The Rhinoceros Embroiderers - listed by name and location of sewing circle in which they participated Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

After the embroidery was completed, it took us a year to finally make the first sheet of paper. We had to fundraise first so that we could move on to the next phase. We used a crowd-sourced fundraising platform through Fractured Atlas, through which we can still receive donations to the project.

To make a sheet of paper the size of a rhinoceros, it was necessary to build what papermakers call a pouring mold or a deckle box. In Western-style papermaking, the tool that is used to pull sheets of paper from a vat of pulp is called a mold and deckle. Typically, it is dipped in a vat of water and pulp, collecting the pulp on the mesh surface and allowing the water to drain out. However, at the size we were going to be working, this wasn’t feasible. And so, we adapted a more Eastern technique, in which paper pulp is poured onto a surface and allowed to dry in situ.

Assembling the pouring mould for the first time, May 2019, Pacific Textile Arts, Fort Bragg, CA Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

We needed a custom pouring mold for our project and so we commissioned Nathan Anderson, proprietor of Anderson’s Alternatives, a reclaimed and locally sourced wood dealer and woodworking studio in Mendocino, CA. Nathan and his team designed and milled a mold that can be (somewhat) easily assembled and disassembled. For this mold, a system of ribs is held in place in a frame. On top of this, we laid bamboo window screening, then the embroidery, and then another frame that creates the deckle box is placed on top. When fully assembled, paper pulp is poured on the embroidery, the water drains onto the floor, and the paper is allowed to dry in place. When fully dry, the paper is carefully peeled from the embroidery – creating a ghostly negative image of the embroidery in the paper.

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Peeling the embroidery from the dry paper, Shotwell Papermill, August 2019 Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project
The First Pouring Attempt, May 2019, Pacific Textile Arts, Fort Bragg, CA : We used too much pulp, and the resultant paper is sculptural rather than thin which is necessary for the watermark to work. Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project
Handmade Paper Pour at Shotwell Papermill, August 2019 - we poured the thinned pulp from three sides of the mould to create the motion necessary for a consistent sheet. Ph. Credit: Javier Briones

Your project uses embroidery to create a space for conversation during traveling, participatory sewing circles; Why is embroidery an efficient tool to sparkle discussion?

Embroidery is a meditative, relaxing activity that can be really grounding. The collective energy of sewing together tends to create an empathetic space that sparkles listening and sharing.

Embroidery is also an accessible art form – a person with no experience can pick up a needle and begin making stitches with little instruction. Some people will recognize that their stitches may not be as “perfect” as an experienced stitcher; but there is a beauty in stitches made by someone who is new to the craft, and when our participants let go of the belief that they must be “good enough” to contribute, they become more accepting of those around them, as well as themselves. Honest conversation can flow from this letting go.

Sewing Circle at Ruths Table, San Francisco, CA, September 2017 Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project
Sewing Circles around The 1524 Map of Tenochtitlan in Abruzzo, Italy, July 2021. “Fontecchio” Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project
Sewing Circles around The 1524 Map of Tenochtitlan in Abruzzo, Italy, July 2021. “Petogna” Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project
Sewing Circles around The 1524 Map of Tenochtitlan in Abruzzo, Italy, July 2021. “Barisciano” Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project
Sewing Circles around The 1524 Map of Tenochtitlan in Abruzzo, Italy, July 2021. “Barisciano” Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project
Sewing Circles around The 1524 Map of Tenochtitlan in Abruzzo, Italy, July 2021. “Barisciano” Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project
Sewing Circles around The 1524 Map of Tenochtitlan in Abruzzo, Italy, July 2021. “Acciano” Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

After The Rhinoceros Project, your new project with maps brought you to Italy. Can you tell us more about this development and your experience?

We have continued referencing Durer in our second large-scale embroidery, this time based on a map of Tenochtitlan, (pre-Hispanic Mexico City). Through researching Durer and his Rhinoceros, we learned that he had printed a woodcut map of Tenochtitlan that was published in a 1524 edition of Hernan Cortes’ letters to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, celebrating his conquest of the Aztec Empire. Like the rhinoceros, Albrecht Durer never saw Tenochtitlan, or even visited the New World.

The map is a European interpretation, based on Cortes’ accounts, of an American indigenous cosmology. The image itself is oriented with south at the top, the left-hand side of the map represents, at a very different scale than that of the city, the Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern United States, including Florida. On the right is the city of Tenochtitlan, under the Hapsburg flag, surrounded by Lake Texcoco, with the raised causeways that linked the island city to the mainland. At the center of the city is the temple precinct, and at its center are the twin temples that were dedicated to the deities Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli, gods of water and war, respectively.

In Summer of 2021, we were invited through a program called Riabitare con L’Arte by an organization called Lab 8 to come to the Abruzzo region of Italy. For this program, four communes, Fontecchio, Panfilo di Ocre, Fossa, and our host, Barisciano, hosted artists to do projects in their communities. We also visited the communes of Acciano and Petogna.

Abruzzo is a region that was devastated by an earthquake in 2009, and subsequent earthquakes in 2015 and 2018. Most of the people we met are living in provisional housing developments provided by the European Union. Despite this, Abruzzo is a region rich in community, creativity, beauty, and people who value and respect the land.

During our time in Abruzzo, we worked on our second monumental embroidery, the 1524 Map of Tenochtitlan. In 1524, the year this map was published in Nuremberg, Cortes requested friars of the Franciscan and Dominican orders to convert the indigenous population. These initial friars established what became known as “Mission Churches” throughout central Mexico, up along the coast of Baja California, and finally, as the first European establishments in Alta California, now the US state of California in which we live.

While we’d initially thought Italy was so far from a path relevant to the map, we soon realized that the Spanish missionaries who colonized Mexico and California had their origins not too far from where we were staying: in Assisi, home to St. Francis (father of the Franciscan order, and namesake of San Francisco), and in Capestrano, 15 kms down the road, birthplace of St. Giovanni, or San Juan Capestrano, one of the notable Mission Churches in California.

Valeria Gallese teaches us to dye wool with montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine, Santo Stefano, Abruzzo, Italy July 2021 Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

Where is the project going next? What are your further plans?

Several of our collaborative artist books were just in the exhibit Finding Common Ground: Sowing the Seeds of Community and Collaboration, at the San Francisco Center for the Book, in San Francisco, CA. And we were supposed to have offered our first post-Covid sewing circle there as the closing event for the exhibition, but that event had to be cancelled because Anne contracted Covid, and so it will still be forthcoming at some point in the not too distant future.

The Rhinoceros Embroidery and the first watermarked sheet of paper are included in 45th Anniversary Exhibition: New Directions at the San Jose Museum of Textiles, in San Jose, CA., where we are also hoping to offer a sewing circle in March 2022.

Beyond this is a good question. We have vacillated between totally going with the flow, and having a precise strategic plan. When we first conceived of the map project and were applying for funding, we thought it would be provocative to travel our sewing circles along the path of the Franciscan Missionaries and Hernan Cortes – only in reverse – from Northern California, through Mexico, back to Spain. Once again, funding has been elusive, and well, Covid has presented challenges, so we’re yielding to adaptability and excited for expanding our community wherever the wind may blow us.

During our time in Abruzzo, we tested out an idea we had over the quarantine. While the rhinoceros is sewn with commercially available embroidery floss, we want to, wherever possible, incorporate local materials – fibers and dyes, into the map embroidery. Abruzzo has a rich history of shepherding, wool trade, and artisans working with fibers and natural dyeing. We purchased some local gentile di Puglia wool, some dyed with local saffron, and dyed some ourselves with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine, dyers’ chamomile and elicriso (helichrysum) that we sparingly harvested on our excursions.

Moving forward, we want the Map to be a material record of the communities and locations with whom we have collaborated.

Filo di lana in tintura naturale di elicriso, Barisciano, Abruzzo, Luglio 2021 Ph. Credit: The Rhinoceros Project

On your website, there is a call out for support. How can people help your project?

Thank you so much for asking!

Our project has been largely self-funded, so we are thrilled with any offers of financial support. We are fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, which means any donations we receive through their platform are tax deductible:  https://fundraising.fracturedatlas.org/the-rhinoceros-project/general_support.

Another form of support we are seeking is partnerships with people, communities, venues, and organizations, who might be interested in hosting or otherwise supporting our projects – both to complete the Rhinoceros paper pours and to continue sewing the Map.

When we began the rhinoceros, our goal was to pour six rhinoceros watermarks, to honor the – at that time – six remaining Northern White Rhinoceros. As the project progressed, more of the Northern White Rhinoceros have died, leaving only two infertile females on the planet. We debated, along the way, whether the edition should dwindle as the species dwindled, and decided no – that it is important to commemorate each of these 6 creatures who set us on this journey and whose deaths have counted down the end of a species.

We are looking for communities with which to share the pouring of the remaining 5 watermarks. In our dream world, we envision this happening in places that echo the story of Durer’s Rhinoceros – locations such as Goa, India, Lisbon, Portugal, Nuremberg, Germany, and Rome, Italy.

And, lastly, we are seeking communities with whom to share our continued work on “The 1524 Map of Tenochtitlan” – to collect fibers and dye together, sew together, and share stories together. These do not need to be communities of artists or art-worlders. We hope to sew with people who are willing to sit with us and share their stories, those who may teach us things we may not know about embroidery or those who may be picking up a needle for the first time.