Monday, June 7, 2010

The role of “The Dead Pearl Diver” of Portland Maine in the novel Swimming With Wings by Lee Libro

The most surprising thing that I learned while writing Swimming With Wings, was the common ground I found with Benjamin Paul Akers, the true life sculptor of The Dead Pearl Diver” a statue that takes center stage for my main character, Lark Jennison. In addition to being a sculptor, he was an art critic for The Atlantic Monthly during the 1860’s and his critical theory aligns with my own musings about the role of art to the artist, namely that expression is a form of communion with the universe, or what many call God. I found this to be a very progressive, even New Age-like idea for someone in the 1860’s. What made it most surprising was that I discovered this after I had already written many parts of the story that address this idea.

Aker’s ideas about art are precisely what I tried to convey through Lark and these very ideals are represented by his most noted piece, The Dead Pearl Diver” that is housed in the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine.

Aker’s Dead Pearl Diver is a statue of a young man reclined across an embankment at the bottom of the sea. A finely sculpted fish net drapes across his lower torso and in the unseen negative space around the youthful figure is the “water” into which you the viewer momentarily are allowed to enter. The statue is rendered so lifelike that while standing there next to the young man, one might imagine that he is still breathing. But then you realize he is dead and then the paradox hits you. Of course he’s dead. He has drowned in that element and yet it is this very realization, which gives life to the marble.

I believe that everything I feel when I look at The Dead Pearl Diver is exactly Aker’s intended effect. The sorrow for a fallen young man who sought nothing more than to retrieve a beautiful pearl from the ocean floor is a common reaction to the piece, but a transcending message lingers with the viewer. The artist’s conveyance of this expression can only be achieved through the art, but if words came close to doing so then consider this excerpt from Aker’s article published in the January 1860 issue of The Atlantic Monthly: “the foremost purpose of an artist should be to claim and take possession of the self.” He later says that “genius (artist) is exquisitely fastidious, and the man whom it possess must live its life, or no life.” I somehow see this in the Dead Pearl Diver and imagine that the statue is actually the Akers himself, who indeed died as a young man.

Lark’s modern day experience of discovering herself in art springs directly from having lost her father in a drowning accident. Her grief for having lost her earthly father and her obsession with “The Dead Pearl Diver” hearken the greater, human struggle to determine spirituality. The title Swimming with Wings is a play on this idea as if to say that we are truly spirits mired in the waters of humanity. Just as this struggle is literally displayed through the religious polarity between Lark and her love, Peter Roma, the Jennison mansion literally hides the truth about their father’s death, and in so doing it symbolizes the greater mysteries in life. Likewise “The Dead Pearl Diver” takes both a literal and an underlying role in the story. When one looks deeply, though it is mentioned in but a few passages, the statue, it resonates with these same themes and thereby plays a role as predominantly as any one of the living characters.


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Deana said...

I've got to read this book. I have been looking for something that makes me say WOW!