ARTIST’S CORNER: INSPIRING MUSES OF THE UPPER KEYS

Art isn’t created in a vacuum.  You look at the artwork and you might wonder what was going on with the artist or society at that time. 

It has often been debated when looking at powerful art: did the art come first or the environment that inspired it? Many times, a piece of art is a window into a whole world.  The artwork reflects something of the artist and that time. Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso, even though they lived nearly a century apart and had dramatically different styles, both created important masterworks showing the disasters of Spanish wars and how cruel war was.  Andy Warhol’s work reflected a very commercialized world — this translated into some of his most famous pop art works.  

The point is artists most often paint what they experience, see and feel in their environment. Here, we have a tropical island environment, so most of our paintings will have some sort of island influence, if not in the subject matter, perhaps by the colors or techniques we use. 

This can be somewhat referred to eloquently in the way the ancient Greeks did – the muses. The muses were ethereal goddesses who inspired the arts, science and literature. In the Upper Keys, there are two muses that come to mind. In Key Largo, it’s the Christ of the Deep and in Islamorada it’s Alligator Reef lighthouse. Both these manmade monuments have inspired artists to paint their own versions of these iconic landmarks.

The unofficial muse of Key Largo is the Christ of the Deep or the Christ of the Abyss. The sculpture is that of Jesus Christ with his arms stretching outward and welcoming. The sculpture was made by Italian sculptor Guido Galletti and is originally called “Il Christo Degli Abissi.” It is one of three statues made from the sculptor’s mold. The first can be found in the Mediterranean Sea off of Genoa, Italy. The one in Key Largo was donated by the Cressi family of Italy. In 1961 they donated the piece to the Underwater Society of America, which donated it to the Florida State Park Service in recognition for the creation of America’s first underwater park.

The statue is roughly 9 feet tall, made of bronze weighing approximately 4,000 pounds; it sits on a concrete base in water that has a depth of about 25 feet. It has become a symbol of Key Largo. Like any good cultural icon, the Christ of the Abyss can be found on postcards and shirts. The beauty of the sculpture has been a muse to artists who live and visit Key Largo.

Heading to Islamorada, people come across another Upper Keys icon, the Alligator Reef Lighthouse. The lighthouse has been around for a while — it was first operational in 1863, a time so early that it was nearly 50 years before Flagler’s railroad connected the mainland to Key West. With something around that long, how can it not be a muse to those who see it?  What type of lighthouse is Alligator Reef Lighthouse, exactly?  It is a skeletal, octagonal, pyramidal iron piling tower. The keeper’s dwelling was on a platform toward the bottom base. It was automated in 1963 and stands at 136 feet. The lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.    

Alligator Reef Lighthouse feels like it has always been there, like a guardian watching over Islamorada. It was through efforts by metal artisan “Lighthouse” Larry Herlth that the beautiful, smaller replica sculptures of the lighthouse were created and can be seen around Islamorada today. Herlth, an open water swimmer, championed the idea of swimming to Alligator Reef Lighthouse, which has now become “The Swim for Alligator Lighthouse.”  The Friends of the Pool, a nonprofit that organizes the 8-mile swim, now has ownership over the lighthouse and is charged with restoring this important symbol of Islamorada.

Ask any local artist – pick your favorite one – and they probably have photographed, drawn, painted or sculpted the Christ of the Abyss or the Alligator Reef Lighthouse. Why wouldn’t they? The sculpture and the lighthouse are symbols of their environment. It is part of our culture and permeates the minds of Florida Keys locals and visitors alike, who keep asking to see it in art form again and again.

BJ Royster dive Christ of the Abyss: Artist BJ Royster imitates the pose of the Christ of the Abyss statue during a dive. BJ ROYSTER/Contributed