Alec Benke created a custom pedestal, including scales, for the mermaid sculpture on Spinnaker drive.
by Amy Brown
For many years there have been two iconic bronze mermaid statues, each gracing a separate entrance to the Ventura harbor. One has a plaque reading “From Russia with Love,” but today they both wear Ukrainian flower crowns in yellow and blue. Their donor, Alec Benke, is no stranger to the mysticism and idea of mermaids. A native of the former Soviet Union, starting in 1987 he served for three years as a sonar technician on submarines near Vietnam, and spent countless hours on watch, differentiating between friends (fishing barges lumbering past) and foes, which included at that time the 6th Fleet of the U.S. Navy. Other unexpected friends were heard during those lonely assignments, which Benke is sure were mermaids. “I know it sounds crazy,” he laughs. He never saw these fabled sirens, but shares that he heard and felt them, and the idea of their presence filled him with calmness and quiet joy. Later during his service he was surprised when he came to realize that Americans are just regular people, like his own countrymen. “You should not underestimate the power of Soviet propaganda about Americans at that time,” said Benke.
Benke was living in Kazakhstan when the Iron Curtain fell. “Suddenly, I was not welcome there anymore and I wasn’t welcome in Russia anymore; I was a foreigner. It was shocking,” said Benke, who soon attended a marine academy, and met his wife Tatyana. The two travelled to Kodiak, Alaska and since they already had visas, they went to the US embassy and eventually became citizens.
The couple moved to Ventura in 2000, and Alec began a construction company, focused on rock formations and mosaics. During his travel for the business, he drove to and from San Diego, and along that route he first saw glorious 15’ tall mermaid sculptures, which reminded him viscerally of his experiences as a submariner, so he pulled off the highway to investigate. “It was because like I fell in love with them, and I would stop and visit them on every trip,” he said.
Benke eventually was able to buy them, maxing out his credit cards, and brought them back to Ventura. “By that time I had a small house, but what am I going to do with them? My wife finally had had enough of them lying in our little backyard, so I decided to give them to the city. They’re still mine, in my heart, but I decided to build everything for them.”
His love for his new country, the ocean and these beautiful mermaids dovetailed with other labors of love, when Benke met Sam Povar and Andy Soter. Povar was a community activist committed to private-public art projects, and sought to honor his late wife, Oriana and Soter was working on a project to upgrade paths in Marina Park to memorialize the loss of her daughter Andrea to cancer. “We came the three of us together and worked on this project. It was amazing. All three of us, different ages, but we were like old friends immediately.” The project was creating symbols of love with the donation of the two mermaid statues, on custom stone ten-foot-tall pedestals created by Benke. One plays the flute and is on what is now called Soter Point, and the other, playing a cello, is across the harbor on Spinnaker.
Today Benke’s personal labor of love includes raising awareness and activism to support the citizens of Ukraine. He shared that his support of Ukraine has cost him relationships with his parents and friends in Russia. “I decorated the mermaids with the traditional Ukrainian flower wreath as a sign of support and admiration for the fearless Ukrainian people,” said Benke. His partner in the project applauds Benke’s sentiments. “It is a great expression of love and fondness for Ukrainian people and joy to be an American citizen,” said Soter.
Benke encourages others to support the Ukrainians and petition legislators during this time by visiting the site www.protectukrainenow.com. “The world as we know it has been changed forever,” said Benke.