The Spit has plenty of places to sit. There are picnic tables. Pieces of driftwood. A scattered assortment of benches. Rocks in various sizes.
Bill and Dorothy Fry, whose daughter Nikki died unexpectedly in 2013 at the age of 30, had something different in mind. A bench designed in her honor, overlooking the harbor and offering a harbor of its own.
“I wanted to do this for Hank, so he would have a place to go and try to remember his mom,” said Bill Fry of Nikki’s son Hank who had turned 2-years-old less than a month before Nikki’s death.
Now, more than a year since the Frys took their idea to Homer artist Brad Hughes, the project is nearing completion.
Benches aren’t new to Hughes. Residents and visitors alike have seen the bench he made in memory of the late Jean Keene, known as Homer’s “eagle lady” for her commitment to looking after Homer’s bald eagle population during winter months. Positioned on the beach between Land’s End Resort and the shores of Kachemak Bay, it offers a place to soak up the view, enjoy a cup of coffee and listen to the surf.
The bench design settled on by the Frys and Hughes has a seat and back of curved metal lathes. The cement ends of the bench have been made by Hughes to look like a mermaid, her top half appears to be above the water’s surface, her hair and mermaid tail seem to swirl in the current. From the left side of the bench can be seen the mermaid’s face as she looks down at the infant cradled in one arm. From the right, her other arm drops to her side, the fingers curved.
As seasoned an artist at Hughes is, the project offered one specific challenge. The Frys wanted the mermaid’s face to be in Nikki’s likeness, but Hughes had never met Nikki. The Frys provided photographs, but Hughes knew what he saw in a photograph might not be who Nikki was.
“Even though form, hair, everything is there, it might not represent who I think this person is. Whether they look thinner, fatter, younger, happy or unhappy. All these qualities add up to likeness and only part is the actual shape of a person’s face,” he said. “When you’re hunting for that, there are no rules. You’re just on a search.”
Add to that the challenges of bas-relief, in which the sculptor creates what appears as a complete three-dimensional shape on a surface that is, in the case of the bench, less than six inches thick.
“I’d do the wrong thing or a little bit of the right thing and I’d begin to see the face, and then, when it gets close, anything a little bit wrong can be way wrong,” said Hughes. “It took me a year from when I started her face full-size to finally walk in here and have my wife walk in here and say, ‘okay.’”
The hands were another area where Dorothy Fry’s knowledge of her daughter helped Hughes. Caught up in the mermaid design, Hughes initially made the fingers long and graceful, but Dorothy Fry said that wasn’t right, that Nikki’s hands were more like hers, with shorter fingers.
“So we changed them to reflect that,” said Hughes.
Inside each end of the bench will be two bronze plaques. One bears Nikki’s name, the year she was born and the year she died. On the other is a quote of significance to the Frys.
“It’s a Dr. Seuss quote. ‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,’” said Bill Fry of the reminder for others as much as himself. “I want it to be there, but every time I think about Nikki for more than a few seconds, I just lose it.”
The bench’s design, the delight it offers the eye, the comfort it extends to someone needing a place to rest, and the memories the Frys hope it will spark in their grandson are possible due to Hughes’ many years as an artist, his familiarity with the detailed steps needed and the materials being used.
“I’ve been doing art since I was old enough to do art,” said Hughes, a Norfolk, Virginia, native. His introduction to Alaska in the late 1960s was as a Baptist missionary in Fort Yukon. In 1972, he moved to Homer and immersed himself in the community. He built Pier One Theatre sets and made the Alice’s Champagne Palace signs that caused a community-wide stir. He painted names on boats, painted pictures of boats and had a T-shirt business for several years. The Homer Public Library sign is a Brad Hughes’ creation.
During the time he helped care for his mother-in-law and needed to be nearby rather than in his studio, Hughes began work on a digital comic book about the Alaska Alternative Air Force. On his computer are drawings for his next project: signs for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.
“It’s taken a lot of projects to learn how to make this bench,” said Hughes.
For years, he has been assisted by Corey Schmidt of Halibut Cove, who helps with woodwork and painting. Mark Ervice offers technical support and Rob Ward answers questions about concrete.
“All my projects are collaborations with real smart people,” Hughes said. “I’m always bringing people in to make sure I don’t make mistakes. It’s really paid off.”
That has proven true with Nikki’s bench.
“Her mother is thrilled to pieces,” said Hughes. “That’s the ultimate.”