Sunken Treasures

Ann Lorraine Labriola's sculpture Stargazer sits on the ocean floor five miles southeast of Key West in eighteen feet of water. On a brilliantly sunny Saturday afternoon recently, a light breeze wrinkled the surface as the artist and her boyfriend approached the site in his fishing boat. After the boat was anchored, Labriola donned fins, mask, and snorkel, then jumped into the water and swam off -- in the wrong direction. Soon she spotted her piece and corrected her course. She didn't select this location for its easy accessibility. The most important consideration in placing her work was its potential to function as an artificial reef; the site required a bare ocean floor and a brisk current carrying organisms that could adhere to the structure and create a habitat for fish.

Now Labriola has plans to construct a similar sculpture much closer to shore off the southern tip of Miami Beach. In the works for three years, the South Beach project has been approved by all appropriate governmental agencies. But the construction and installation costs, which the artist estimates at $500,000, remain an obstacle. And another potential problem has surfaced from an unexpected source: the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Not that the civic group is opposed to Labriola's efforts. On the contrary, Ken English, head of the chamber's Water Sports Marketing Council, is enthusiastic -- perhaps too enthusiastic. He envisions Labriola's sculpture as being just one fun component of an "underwater theme park." English's idea is to surround the proposed sculpture with other objects as part of an offshore tourist attraction that would increase Miami's allure as a dive destination and result in big bucks for city businesses during the slow summer season.

Seen from the air through the transparent waters off Key West, Labriola's Stargazer looks like a mysterious, symbolic representation of a bird, its beak pointing southwest toward the Sand Key light. The work's sudden appearance amid the expanse of blue is unexpected and intriguing.

From a diver's perspective the sculpture becomes both abstract and dynamic. Ten individual structures, each supported by steel legs, stretch some 200 feet across the ocean floor. Some resemble giant submerged tables, with perforations designed to simulate night-sky constellations used by mariners for navigation. A large circle with cross beams becomes a mandala that can be contemplated by floating above or beneath it. From the underwater vantage point, the pieces of the sculpture appear monumental and seem to extend indefinitely along the oceanic landscape.

Since its installation in September 1992, Stargazer's surfaces have become encrusted with soft and hard corals and covered with undulating plants, creating a luscious living tapestry of textures and colors. This afternoon the area is crowded with schools of grouper, blue-lipped angel fish, and lobsters that have found refuge under the structures.

"I want my art to be functional to the environment," says Labriola, a fit 42-year-old clad in a green bathing suit and shorts with a Peanuts cartoon motif. She climbs back into the rocking boat with ease. "My sculpture is really just a skeleton. Nature makes it a work of art. Where there was a desert, a garden has grown."

Like other so-called earth, or site, artists who see nature not as the setting for a piece of art but as an integral part of the artwork, Labriola hopes to draw attention to the surrounding beauty of the environment while emphasizing man's often destructive interaction with nature -- especially with regard to South Florida's delicate reefs. "You're totally immersed in the sculpture, you're not just looking at it as an object," stresses the Key West artist, whose other large projects include a two-mile-long rock sculpture in the Nevada desert and an underwater installation off Culebra, Puerto Rico. "What's important is not just the art but where the art is placed."

In this case, the work is effective. While it may not provoke the initial morbid thrill of seeing an old airplane or freighter lying on the ocean bottom, the sculpture's calculated composition and full exposure to divers offer a richer meditative experience than the wrecks more commonly used as artificial reefs. Conceptually and aesthetically it succeeds as a work of art within its environment, unlike the popular underwater Christ of the Abyss in Key Largo -- simply a submerged statue with kitsch appeal.

Labriola conceived her latest proposed underwater sculpture for a site off Key Biscayne, but Bruce Henderson, an environmental specialist with the City of Miami Beach, encouraged her to propose the project for installation off lower South Beach as part of a shallow-water artificial reef program in that area. The all-steel Galaxy, 217 feet long and 155 feet across at its widest point, suggests a pendulum emerging from a large object shaped like a spiral galaxy (also similar to the meteorological symbol for a hurricane) and swinging across a great arc. Solar panels would power an underwater lighting system to illuminate the sculpture for several hours each night.

After a coastal engineering firm studied plans for the work and found that it would have no adverse impact on the beach or wildlife, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection granted the artist a permit to place the sculpture approximately 600 feet offshore from Penrod's Beach Club, in roughly eighteen feet of water just north of Government Cut.

Labriola is keen on the idea of installing the sculpture along South Beach, where it could be experienced by more people than her Key West work. While Stargazer is visited primarily by marine biology students from Florida Keys Community College as a research site, Galaxy would provide recreational divers and snorkelers a chance to swim from shore and "leave the hustle and bustle of our world and take the time to enjoy our fragile environment, which we must be aware of before we lose it."

But where Labriola imagines an oasis, the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce's Ken English sees a trendy underwater park -- presumably the more crowded the better. "Ann's project would be nothing but a drop in the bucket," English gushes in describing a visionary snorkeling reef "with the pizzazz of South Beach. The Galaxy would become a centerpiece that we're looking to wrap things around. The plan would be to put other things down there."

Such as what type of other things? "An underwater something," English ventures, that would honor slain fashion icon Gianni Versace and be created from ten enormous blocks of marble confiscated by the FBI during a 1995 drug seizure. (Two of the marble blocks had been hollowed out to store cocaine.)

Although she is reluctant to criticize English's tourist fantasy (the chamber has endorsed her Galaxy proposal), Labriola admits she's not too excited about his concept of a Versace memorial. "There should be a panel to decide what goes down there," she says carefully. "Things should be chosen that are outstanding."

Bruce Henderson agrees. "We've talked about trying to assemble some sort of group or maybe using the Art in Public Places committee to organize a charrette for designs for these marble blocks," he says. "We'd like to make sure we don't sink a pile of rubble just to say there's something out there." Labriola's successful record of large-scale environmental works was enough to recommend her for the project, he notes, adding that that the chamber of commerce does not make decisions for the city. "It's not their reef project," he states flatly. "I don't want to dampen anyone's enthusiasm, but all this has to carefully planned."

At the moment Labriola is not too concerned about what might end up sharing the ocean floor with her sculpture -- and with good reason: So far there's no money for any of it, least of all from the chamber or the city. English suggests that the chamber might help coordinate events aimed at raising the needed half-million dollars, but nothing definite has been scheduled. To date only Jack Penrod -- one of the owners of Penrod's -- has made a pledge toward the sculpture, a very respectable $10,000.

Most of the fundraising Labriola expects to undertake on her own. She's done it before. She solicited the $125,000 needed for Stargazer from private and corporate donors, "literally going door to door." The U.S. Navy offered her the use of one of their barges to transport the work to the site, and navy divers installed the piece. Some materials were donated.

Labriola says she is planning the same sort of approach for Galaxy. The artist, who owns the Nuthouse -- a store selling nuts, chocolates, and gifts at mile marker ten on Big Coppitt Key -- has begun visiting Miami two days each week in search of sponsors. "I probably belong in a nuthouse," she laughs. "I don't know how many artists would do this." Still, she's confident that her South Beach project will be realized. "I have a lot of patience and a lot of perseverance," she says. "I believe if you are diligent at something, it will happen." At least she has time on her side: Her government permit doesn't expire until 2002.

Stargazer is located approximately five miles southeast of Key West, near the Sand Key light, at latitude 24 27.51' N, longitude 81 52.08'

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