On the surface, this Point of Rocks’ couple’s love story is not extraordinary — boy meets girl at work. Couple marries, and one day moves into their dream house. Though their tale has an interesting spin with some fine details that are, well, somewhat odd.
Carolyn Thome and Paul Rhymer met at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum when they were building props — fake jungles and ponds for a live insect zoo. He was a model maker and taxidermist (who makes deceased animals look lifelike), and she was solely a model maker. Just two artsy work partners who fast became friends, till they paired up for a project in South Africa. Then the relationship became more than about work.
Married in 2004, Thome and Rhymer now live in an old Gothic-style church. What used to be the fellowship hall next door is Rhymer’s home studio, and both buildings hold plenty inside to tell their story.
Rhymer went to work on the project in Africa before Thome, years after they met. A case of homesickness coupled with an Internet connection was the love potion that ignited the spark that had just begun before he left D.C.
“When I went to Africa we kept in touch. We had worked together so long and had always connected. I was by myself, and we’d e-mail a couple of times a day. She was really interested in all I wanted to talk about tied to life in Africa, and I was happy to hear news from home,” said Rhymer.
As his work overseas was ending, the Smithsonian sent Thome over to collect specimens for an elephant habitat exhibit, and the timing worked so they could partner on the project.
When they came back in 1998, they were a couple.
Their work with wildlife and natural habitats has drawn them to nature, not just professionally but recreationally. Between business travel and vacations, they’ve been to Mongolia, Africa, Scotland and around the States. Almost everywhere they go they fish, go bird watching and collect odd finds.
“We started to get into rocks and collecting weird specimens. Like we have a lava bomb in our house that I found at a roadside stand in Colorado,” said Thome.
“We camp every year in the Florida Everglades and have cool sponges from those trips.”
Nature at home
If you walk through the 1912 church that they converted to their home, you will see plenty more nature. Watercolors, oil paintings and drawings of snowy owls and other birds. Wood carvings of vermilion flycatchers. And while they may seem a misfit to the rest of the collection, there are lots of pictures of resin chairs.
Thome takes pictures of them wherever she travels and of the environment around them.
“You see them everywhere, so they are like a unifying object from around the world,” she said.
They were living across the street from the church when it went up for auction.
“It had been a longtime dream of Carolyn’s to live in a large, old open building like a church or schoolhouse. I’ve always known that, even before we were dating,” said Rhymer.
Outside, the building has battered buttresses and a very steep roof. Arched stained glass windows filter sun into the whole main floor, reflecting splashes of color on the walls and ground.
A door leads into a bell tower, which is their foyer. This entrance opens into a sanctuary that’s their main living space, with 14-foot-high walls and cathedral ceilings supported by dark wood arches.
The alter area is their kitchen, with an ornate wood island made from a communion table stretched below a lower cathedral ceiling.
‘Stories with meaning to us’
“Our home is a narrative of our life,” said Rhymer sitting in the sanctuary, surrounded by a blend of modern gadgetry and old artifacts. A computer and large flat screen are set up near tables and pedestals with a collection of sculptures, wood carvings of skulls from around the world, rocks and stones.
“Everything inside this church has stories with meaning to us. It’s a place to accentuate what we both love: art, nature and old things,” he said.
Thome still works at the Smithsonian, making solid, 3-D print models, for instance of human bones, from 3-D CT scan images. Rhymer has since retired and set up shop in his home studio. He creates wildlife sculptures of clay, which he turns into bronze statues.
He uses animals to tell stories — sometimes as metaphors.
“I am working on a piece now of bronze birds of all sizes and types perched on distressed cedar beams that are connected by rusted steel plates. So it’s visually rich with different textures and birds. But it also conveys that birds of a feather aren‘t the only ones that flock together. We are different but the same,” he said.
The studio is mainly Rhymer’s space. But his wife spends time there too in a section set up as a photography studio. She’s engrossed in projects like posing their hunting dogs for an international photo challenge she’s taken on.
The couple’s story may be kind of unique, but some of their pattern runs in the family. Rhymer’s parents also happened to meet through their creative work at the Smithsonian. His mother was a painter and his father, like him, a taxidermist.
But really, Thome and Rhymer are not so different from people outside their family. At least they’re quite ordinary when Thome isn’t making digital images look like real bones, Rhymer’s not sculpting “dung” beetles, and they’re not travelling the world collecting skulls.
Said Thome, “We watch football, pay our bills, shop at Costco and hang out with the dogs like other couples.”