by Tim Gilmore, 8/22/2021
This shipwrecked mermaid bares the abandoned suburban storefront her breasts. Not so strange that mermaids never caught themselves up in Southern small-town politics, which need not apply to them anyway. Rather insulting, however, that she’d rather hang out here, in this most banal and soulless of places, than the South Carolina town that denied her refuge.
Behind her stands the fake suburban town center, with its plaster portico and phony columns stuffed with Styrofoam, an artificial second floor replete with artificial windows with artificial balconies. She stares endlessly (and eyelessly) at the dull monotony of Atlantic Boulevard, a squid for hair, a mud dauber nest at her temple.
She’s not fooled that this strip mall’s developers called it “Harbour Village,” nor by the phony English spelling, yet this sham stage set is where she washed up after offending Beaufort, South Carolina. Maybe if her marble torso and tail weren’t embedded in a green sea of soapstone, she’d swim one mile through Florida’s summer humidity to the Intracoastal Waterway and dive in. The squid whose tentacles form her hair seems already in motion.
St. Augustine sculptor Thomas Glover W. said Beaufort City Council was just “ignorant in art.” In 1993, Beaufort had approved $55,000 for public art in a restored Waterfront Park. Over 14 other entries, the Beaufort Public Art Commission chose Glover’s, which the [Hilton Head, South Carolina] Island Packet newspaper called “a four ton stone mermaid and her exotic fishy friends riding a large wave.”
The commission, however, objected to the mermaid’s breasts and demanded they be covered. Beaufort City Council declared those measures didn’t go far enough and soon the sculpture’s piscine mammaries instigated a mano-a-mano. Glover’s promotional material said, “Eroticism is a tension between contrary forces. It is a spark and I am a floodplain of gasoline.” The council reached for the fire extinguisher.
Having been told the Beaufort Mermaid, as she’d been dubbed, wasn’t welcome, Glover began work sculpting “the legendary albino dolphin of Beaufort called Carolina Snowball.” But it was too late. Passions had been stirred. Feelings had been hurt. Honor had been affronted. It didn’t help when Glover said public art and controversy were “mated together, angry lovers, always quarreling.” The council had no desire to engage in some tempestuous ménage à trois with a sea creature and an angry artist.
They had, of course, misunderstood. Glover had no such interest in the council members. His heart was in his creation and it was she for whom he fought. As soon as he’d designed her, Glover said, “She breathed life. She held spirit and enchantment. She knew things I didn’t.”
He became her Henry Higgins and she, his Eliza Doolittle. Higgins, the linguist in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, breathes social viability and credibility into the street vender of flowers by teaching her to speak like an educated woman. The title of the 1914 play alludes to the mythological artist in Ovid’s Metamorphoses who sculpts a woman and falls in love with her; the goddess Venus brings her to life.
In Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza not only learns to speak well, but learns to question her teacher and his oblivious masculinity. In the penultimate act, Eliza tells the professor she was better off before their educational endeavor began. When he asks what she means, she says, “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else. I wish you’d left me where you found me.” She’s critiquing and rebelling against the Victorian requirements that upper class women be well-educated with no real outlets for it, no real agency in the world. At least a barely literate street vendor could work for herself.
Higgins responds by calling her a “heartless guttersnipe.” When she runs away that night, she tells Freddy, the young man she meets up with, that she’s headed for the river.
“What for?” he asks.
“To make a hole in it,” she says. (Spoiler Alert: She doesn’t commit suicide: she marries Freddy; Higgins never stops “mansplaining.”)
Oh mermaid! What keeps you from making your hole in the river and swimming with the fishes of whom you are half? Are you heartless? As heartless and soulless as a strip mall? Can a mermaid be a guttersnipe?
In 2006, developer Ramzy Bakkar salvaged the design, not knowing the back story, hired Glover to sculpt the mermaid, and brought her to his new Harbour Village Shopping Center. It’s not her idea of a harbor village. (Not a British “harbour” either.) Nor is the gated community called Queen’s Harbor next door. She can’t get through the gate there anyway. It’s exclusive. It excludes her. Like Beaufort did.
I try to look her in the eyes, but no eyes fill her sockets. She has nipples and areolae, but no eyes. Just as the frames in the fake second story behind her bear no windows.
I tell her about that other Thomas Glover, the surgeon who lived in Colonial Virginia and presented his description of a strange sighting to the Royal Society of London in 1676. One day on the Rappahannock River, as he relaxed on a boat, reading a book, Glover spotted “a most prodigious Creature, much resembling a man, only somewhat larger, standing right up in the water with his head, neck, shoulders, breast and waste [sic], to the cubits of his arms, above water; his skin was tawny, much like that of an Indian.”
The merman circled Glover’s boat and stared him down, but it was the underwater dive that most astounded the surgeon. For then the strange beast “shoots with his head downwards, by which means he cast his tayl above water, which exactly resembled the tayl of a fish with a broad fane at the end of it.”
The Royal Society ascribed merit to Glover’s report, as Vaughn Scribner writes in his 2017 paper “‘Such Monsters Do Exist in Nature’: Mermaids, Tritons, and the Science of Wonder in Eighteenth-Century Europe,” including it in its Philosophical Transactions. One scientific authority of the time replied, “This Creature seems to be the Mermaid or Merman, supposed to be half human and half a Fish, the Reality of which many Persons have doubted; but their Existence is too well attested to be denied.”
It is indeed, for Thomas Glover W. has given us one. I only met Glover—The “W.” abbreviated his last name, “White”—once. It was mid-1990s. Based on a personal recommendation, I introduced him to a black preacher who wanted to commission a statue of James Weldon Johnson. The preacher went on a diatribe about dancing and “young people foolishness.” I asked Glover how he first got into sculpture and he said, “Serpents” with a hiss. It wasn’t a good match.
Glover had, in fact, worked as a herpetologist for the Smithsonian, catching and cataloguing “nuisance snakes” and releasing them to appropriate environments. When he died of a brain tumor in 2012, three days before his 64th birthday, sculptor Marianne Lerbs, Glover’s wife, said, “His dream was to do something huge,” bigger even than his multi-ton artworks. And he did. His greatest legacy is the St. Augustine Beach Sculpture Garden, containing several of his own enormous marble pieces.
Jacksonville only got its Glover through Beaufort, South Carolina’s bungling. She’s lonely here. I invite her to swim upriver and perch herself downtown where she’d be better appreciated. Even the department store behind her has set sail. Its anchor tenant space stands empty.
I smell the rain coming. I say goodbye to my lonely mermaid friend. I invite her to the urban core, but she doesn’t budge, doesn’t even blink. If she won’t make a hole in the river and join her cousins the sea cow and the St. Johns River Monster, perhaps she’ll aim her strange face up to the onset of storm, let fly the tentacles from her scalp, fan out her tail, spread her fins and dive up into the rainclouds above us.