Saturday, January 31, 2015

Book Review: Fire in the Sea: Bioluminescence & Henry Compton's Art of the Deep

Fire in the Sea: Bioluminescence & Henry Compton's Art of the Deep
David A. McKee

‘“What else can you tell me about him?” Unfortunately, not a whole lot.”’ This seems a pitiful way to begin a story, let alone tell the story of a man’s hidden passion, but Fire in the Sea: Bioluminescence & Henry Compton's Art of the Deep by David A. McKee succeeds by focusing on the passion and not the man.

Henry Compton began his professional life as a marine biologist, one of the first in the country, working for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. He was posted aboard the research vessel Western Gulf stationed in Rockport, Texas, and tasked with collecting deep sea samples from the Gulf of Mexico. Compton literally dragged the ocean floor with a heavy net, searching for life forms never before seen. This was dangerous work. “Pulling nets at great depths required large cables and winches under a lot of strain and tension.” However, the Western Gulf had a trick; the crew used “gigantic logging winches used in the timber industry” to haul up the nets. The result was a mound of mud dredged up anywhere from 1000 meters to as deep as 4000 meters to the ocean surface. The resulting sludge was dumped on the deck of the Western Gulf. Compton would immediately begin pawing through the dripping muck as if searching for treasure. Sometimes his efforts would bear no fruit, and sometimes he would dig up a hellish body from a medieval nightmare. He was dredging from the mesopelagic and bathypelagic zones. At this depth, the pressure of their environment warps sea creatures’ bodies into un-natural, nightmarish shapes. In recompense, many of the creatures are endowed with natural bioluminescence. The result is otherworldly, glow in the dark monsters.

Back on shore, Compton rigged a darkroom beneath a stairwell in the marine lab, and took photographs and slides of the fish excavated from the mud for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department publications. When necessary he would augment the photographs with his own spare ink and pencil drawings. What was known only to a few close friends is that Compton the marine biologist was also a highly talented, albeit untrained, artist. He took the half-formed images home in his mind, and completed them by experimenting with gouache, board, and liquid rubber to create his own medium and his own vision of the deep. This medium enabled him to create complex, multi-layered works of art. He still had no way to definitively recreate the creatures’ environment on the canvass, so he left them swimming in pitch blackness, or in one macabre painting, filled out the environment from his own sorrow.

There is no evidence that Compton ever considered his work for public sale or even public viewing. Consequently, the text accompanying the individual pictures can be highly eccentric. He mixed taxonomic information with whimsical tales of imagination that could resemble an elongated fantasy of Lord Dunsany or the voice of Mark Twain relating a salty anecdote. In describing the Sleeper shark he wrote, “He had strange and lovely teeth of two kinds, different as steak knives and cleavers. His uppers were slender and curved in fence of fang; his lowers, a palisade of flat triangular points keen as the face of a razor…He had the mouth of a butcher’s shop.” The life of the gulping Pelican Eel he describes in gambler’s terms. “Red and black. Gambler’s pigment. Rouge and Noir for the spinning wheel of luck. In the deep sea black is black and red is black and all the chips are laid on noir.” The image of the terrifying Shining Bow Dragonfish spawned a tale of timeless Egyptian priestesses, mad Arabian magicians, and a sea goddess dwelling amidst the mermaids of Atlantis.

There’s a strong sense of whimsy and fate meandering not only through Compton’s canvases but their life as well. He died alone in his apartment. When the cleaning service cleared out his living space, they decided, for reasons unknown, not to throw out his life’s work with the rest of his belongings. Instead, they simply left the paintings boxed, and sitting on an outside landing. Miraculously, the skies remained dry until a relative retrieved the boxes and moved them a garage. Years later a professor from Texas A&M tracked down the art and found them to be in remarkably good shape.

In some cases you can learn all there is to know about a man from coworkers, relatives, neighbors, and the occasional newspaper clipping. But in other cases, fate would prefer you learn about the man solely from the passion he leaves behind him.

Illustrations from

David Ryan
Social Sciences/Business, Science & Technology Department
Central Library

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