As of last month, boats coming into Ventura Harbor are greeted by not one but two mermaid statues on either side of the entrance. But where did they come from? We got prompted to investigate after a question from Ventura resident Yvonne Escamilla. She had been visiting the ocean with her family and wanted to know: “What is the new giant mermaid statue about at the Ventura Marina?”
Since 2010, there has been a mermaid statue on Soter Point, named after retired businessman Andy Soter. He convinced the City of Ventura to let him put up public art in exchange for refurbishing what was a scrappy piece of land. He and his friend, community activist Sam Povar, wanted to both beautify their city and memorialize loved ones who had passed away: Soter in honor of his daughter Andrea and Povar in honor of his wife Oriana.
The city had turned down their first ideas, but then along came Russian immigrant Alec Benke.
Benke had two mermaid sculptures languishing under a tarp in his backyard, both of which he had bought on a whim in 2005 for over $14,000. “I fell in love with them,” he said.
They came from a World Decor outlet in Downey, California. Benke saw them every time he was driving past the store’s lot at the 605 and 5 freeway interchange, then rescued them from an auction when their original buyer didn’t pay up.
Benke’s wife, Tatiana, urged him to do something with the sculptures, and Soter and Povar happened to share his love for the art.
The first statue – a mermaid playing a flute – was installed to much local media attention in 2010. Seven years later, the second statue- a mermaid playing a cello- joined its sister across the waterway at a patch of land at the end of Spinnaker Road. A contractor by trade, Benke built the pedestals for both, and on the first installed a plaque that reads “From Russia with Love.”
Sam Povar passed away in 2015, but Andy Soter continues to help bring public art to Ventura.
More on believing in mermaids, the sculptures and the artist behind them
Mermaids in real life?
Benke was raised in the landlocked country of Kazakhstan, which gave him a desire to see the ocean. So when he got to leave home he joined the Russian navy and served as a sonar operator in a submarine. Benke said he could hear what he now thinks were mermaids outside the sub.
“I heard them laughing, talking, swimming away and coming back, basically playing,” he said. “Their behavior is almost like dolphins.” He described mermaid talk as bubbles with emotions.
And any time they were nearby, he’d feel “uplifted. I’d have a smile on my face.” He didn’t feel that way again until many years later when he saw the statues.
Who is the artist?
Both statues are dated 2004 and credited to a signature that looks like it reads “Yorravu”. However, a Google search turned up nothing. The statue is also similar in style to one in the plaza of Pier View Suites in Cayucos, CA. Take a look at the signature photo below and if you know anything of this sculptor, email us.
“If we found the artist, I would simply say let’s meet and talk,” Benke said. He added that when he first saw the sculptures, there was a third one, but somebody bought it. He’d love to know where the third mermaid has gone.
The Spinnaker mermaid will soon have some company
That patch of sandy dirt next to the mermaid will soon be turned into a boutique hotel by Eli Parker, son of the late television star and hotelier Fess Parker. The sculpture is on the edge of the land parcel, so Benke assumes the hotel will want to keep it there.
If you love something, set it free
In the end it was a love story for all three of the men involved.
“These two men, Andy and Sam, taught me a lesson,” Benke said. “I was amazed how sorrow could be transformed into beauty.”
But one would think Benke would come and visit his beloved mermaids now that they have been permanently installed for the public to view. That’s not been the case.
“I feel emptiness and jealousy,” he says with a certain wistfulness. “You build all this and you expect to feel satisfaction and that I’ve done something nice. But in reality I’ve never been on the site since I installed her…It’s like she’s not mine anymore. But I got over (the first one) and I’ll get over this one.”
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Curious Coast is a project made possible by the supporters of KCRW and a grant from Antioch University Santa Barbara.