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Underwater art exhibit from Vandenberg shipwreck opens in Key West

A dozen digitally composed photographs were submerged 90 feet below the ocean’s surface, encased in Plexiglas with stainless steel frames and silicone seals.

After sharing habitat with parrot fish, barracudas and Goliath groupers for more than four months in 2011, the art was removed from its unusual exhibit site — the deck of the USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg shipwreck.

The silicone seals did not work perfectly, allowing seawater seepage on the sides of the photos, and the Plexiglas was covered with algae, microorganisms and marine-life skeletons. But when photographer Andreas Franke saw the results, he was not upset.

“Look how cool it is,” he says. “Now it’s unique. You can’t reproduce this because of the help of Mother Nature.”

Franke’s underwater art can now be seen without SCUBA gear at The Studios of Key West in a free exhibit, Vandenberg Project: The Life Above Refined Below, through Feb. 15.

“But don’t come in here with Windex and paper towels,” says Erin Stover-Sickmen, The Studios’ artistic director.

“Yes, please tell everybody in Spanish and English not to clean them,” Franke says with a smile.

The project began with Franke photographing the sunken Vandenberg in April 2010. The commercial photographer from Vienna had seen the ship on the cover of a dive magazine, and knew, he says, that it would be the perfect “theatrical stage” for his new art.

The decommissioned, 523-foot steel vessel, which was intentionally sunk about 6 1/2 miles off Key West in 2009, has striking architectural features, including gigantic satellite missile trackers.

Franke returned to his studio in Vienna, where he photographed adults and children in vintage clothing with various props. The images were added digitally to his gloomy, blue-toned shipwreck photos.

In the resulting works, a young girl with a butterfly net chases myriad bait fish, a woman hangs laundry on a line strung between two posts of the ship and ballerinas use the deck railing as their barre.

“But I think the strongest one may be the mad man,” Franke says, pointing to an image of a curly-haired man in a straitjacket sitting in a wheelchair. It looks like an attendant is wheeling him down the deck, ignored by passing fish.

“When it’s quiet and all you can hear is the loud breathing [from the SCUBA gear], it’s easy to go in this direction,” he says. “It’s a ghost image in a way.”

California tourist Jon Mann, who unexpectedly viewed the exhibit while diving the Vandenberg in 2011, says that when he saw the image of two kick boxers he thought they had some historical meaning. “But when I got to the ballerinas, I realized it probably was not connected to the history.”

The goal from the start, Franke says, was to allow the marine world to change his art. But he wasn’t sure it would turn out well. If too much saltwater seeped past the silicone seals, the pictures would be ruined.

“I was nervous,” he says. “And I was in Europe.”

Capt. Joe Weatherby, who spearheaded the 13-year project to sink the Vandenberg, let Franke know when it was time to retrieve the art.

“Then the wind blew for a month and we couldn’t bring them up,” Weatherby says. “I could hear the concern in Andreas’ voice all the way from Austria.”

But the extra month only added to the character of the works. “I think they now look like old-time treasure maps,” Weatherby says.

The exhibit had its on-the-surface premiere in June at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s gala in Washington, D.C.

Franke is applying the techniques he and Weatherby developed — using powerful magnets, for example, to hang steel-framed image on the ship — to his current project, a 12-image gallery on Barbados’ most popular dive wreck, the 365-foot Stavronikita.

The Vandenberg had been underwater for only one year when Franke photographed it, but the Stavronikita, a Greek freighter, has been attracting marine growth for 35 years. Large gorgonian corals (sea fans) reminded him of Marie Antoinette, so in his studio he photographed women in the voluminous dresses of the era.

Franke says he has spent more than $200,000 on the underwater art projects, subsidized by his commercial photography business.

“This is fun, but I don’t know how much longer I can afford to do it,” he says.

The 12 Vandenberg pieces at The Studios of Key West have been lightly sealed with art spray to keep the marine growth intact.

“That stamp of the sea,” says the gallery’s Stover-Sickmen, “will be on them forever.”