Where The Rhinos Roam - 27 East

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Where The Rhinos Roam

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Davis Murphy with his rhinoceros creations. DALTON PORTELLA

Davis Murphy with his rhinoceros creations. DALTON PORTELLA

Dalton Portella shot a rhinoceros sculpture by Davis Murphy in Montauk last month. DALTON PORTELLA

Dalton Portella shot a rhinoceros sculpture by Davis Murphy in Montauk last month. DALTON PORTELLA

Dalton Portella shot a rhinoceros sculpture by Davis Murphy in Montauk last month. DALTON PORTELLA

Dalton Portella shot a rhinoceros sculpture by Davis Murphy in Montauk last month. DALTON PORTELLA

The Southampton Village Master Plan for the Business District, which includes Main Street and Jobs Lane, hopes to promote business and protect the historic integrity of the village.    DANA SHAW

The Southampton Village Master Plan for the Business District, which includes Main Street and Jobs Lane, hopes to promote business and protect the historic integrity of the village. DANA SHAW

author on Feb 6, 2012

Waiting on Ditch Plains beach in Montauk last month, Dalton Portella’s eyes weren’t fixated on the waves, as they usually are. The avid surfer was watching the empty parking lot instead, his surfboard tucked away at home just up the road.

The photographer had his Canon 5D in hand, and he was bracing for the arrival of his next project.

Mr. Portella had a foggy idea of what to expect, he recalled during an interview at the beach last week. He knew he’d be shooting two of Davis Murphy’s signature, large-scale sculptures, he said, adding that he was familiar with the artist’s work after visiting his studio in Quogue several times. What soon arrived met and exceeded Mr. Portella’s expectations.

Just before 3:45 p.m., Mr. Davis pulled his biodiesel Ford 250 pickup truck into the lot. It was weighed down by a pair of 250-pound fiberglass rhinoceroses—one loaded in the bed, the other strapped to the top.

Even as he reminisced weeks later, Mr. Portella still couldn’t wipe the bewildered grin from his face.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool,’” he laughed.

The men loaded the rhinos onto beach wheels and, with help from curious bystanders, they pushed and pulled the sculptures down to the sand, all the way to the low-tide line.

“I set out to capture some powerful imagery of the rhinos in a setting where they would never normally be, and also enough information to create stories for months,” Mr. Portella said, back at his studio in Montauk. “When I saw that one of the rhino’s heads was detached and a horn was detached from the head, I said, ‘Okay, so I can create imagery that talks about the extinction of the rhino, too.’”

In the wild, rhinoceroses have very few natural predators other than humans. The nearly 2-ton, prehistoric herbivores are poached for their horns, which are made of keratin and, in some cultures, serve as weapons and medicine—not to mention a source of income. According to reports, one pound of rhinoceros horn power will fetch at least $45,000 on the black market, making it pricier than gold, diamonds and cocaine.

In November, the World Wildlife Fund declared the Javan rhinoceros in Vietnam extinct after the last known one was killed. The West African black rhinoceros—one of four subspecies of the black rhino—has also recently been declared extinct.

“So someone who’s struck by extremes, as I am, this just attached itself to me,” Mr. Murphy said of the mammal’s plight during a telephone interview from his second home in Miami last week. “It’s gonna be a long go of it, I think.”

The first rhinoceros by Mr. Murphy was commissioned by an East End client who had lived in South Africa and was involved with rhinoceros rescue, he said. It only took making one before the artist was hooked, and he made another.

“I was amazed by the power of the animal,” he said. “And the strength of sculptural form is amazing, you know. I’ve always worked large. It’s just in my DNA to work large.”

The 5-foot-high-by-11½-foot-long rhinos took months to craft, the artist said. He mixed sand into the fiberglass to give them a natural texture and earthy coloring—grays, browns, tans and reds, he said.

“I put a coat of resin on it and then sprayed it with a water hose, which created texture, too,” he explained. “Because they’re incompatible, the fiberglass and the water.”

Mr. Murphy did not start the project with the intention of photographing the final product, he said. But when he did finish, he knew this was one he wanted to remember, he said.

“They were just so dramatic, and when you do a sculpture as a commission, you lose it,” he said. “And there’s a desire to memorialize it. Really, I just want to push as far as I can go with these projects. It’s not easy. And getting these pieces out to the beach wasn’t easy,” he laughed.

In the name of texture and drama, the sculptures had to be shot on an unmistakable Montauk beach or no beach at all, Mr. Murphy said. So the men set a date: Saturday, January 14. On that chilly, winter afternoon, the artist loaded the rhinos onto his truck with a forklift at his house and studio in Quogue and drove them out to Mr. Portella in Montauk.

“There were some Facebook responses like, ‘Oh, I saw a rhinoceros driving through Amagansett,’ after the pictures went up,” Mr. Murphy said. “You can’t get away with anything on the East End without anyone knowing about it, apparently.”

The men worked until 6:30 p.m., after the sun had completely set. By the end of the shoot, Mr. Portella’s fingers were frozen stiff, barely able to move after snapping 411 photos over the course of three hours on the windy beach, the photographer said.

But it was worth it, he said, because the photos brought the rhinos to life.

“I love being able to create the sense that they’re alive, that these sculptures are breathing,” he said. “A lot of people know my digital prowess and thought I had photocomposed those in, and I’m like, ‘No, those were actually there.’ I like blurring that line: is it real or is it Memorex?”

Mr. Portella photographed every angle imaginable, he said. His next project is photocomposing the rhinos into different locations—such as the Montauk cliffs—and even adding editing in shots of his teenage daughter, Bryn.

“I knew if I captured the rhino well enough, I could keep creating more and more scenarios that are improbable but yet will be totally believable because all of the information is there,” he said.

Both the artist and photographer were hesitant to share their personal reactions to the images, as to not dictate to audiences what they should take away.

“I think viewers will be able to sense the majesty of the beast and hopefully walk away with a sense of beauty, and maybe think about how precious these beasts are,” Mr. Portella offered. “And some of them will be disturbing because I had to go there, too. Like the one with his head and horn cut off, the blood spilling onto the sand.”

He sighed, shaking his head, eyes downcast.

“The poaching and everything else, it makes me want to go out and poach some humans,” he said.

The photographer said he hopes to exhibit the sculptures and photographs with Mr. Murphy in the near future, but the pair has yet to find a gallery space.

“Hamptons, Manhattan, we’d love to take it on the road,” Mr. Portella said. “L.A., Miami, conquer the world with the rhinos!”

While spreading some awareness, too, he added.

For more information on the rhino project, visit davismurphy.net or daltonportella.com.

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