Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Body Sculpture

Digging through my photos, I found one that on an impulse I decided would make a good identity avatar on Facebook.  It is a photo not of me but of something that I hold a memory of, quite important to me but for no apparent reason. 

My friend Bill Puckett, whom I’ve know since third grade, recognized it on Facebook as a piece of statuary in Brookgreen Gardens, in Georgetown County, South Carolina, not far from where we grew up.  I wouldn’t say that it is the most famous sculpture in that amazing collection, but clearly one of the most unusual and most memorable.  It is “Alligator Bender,” poised above the reflecting pool on the site of the burned house of one of the four plantations parts of which comprise Brookgreen. 

I remember the first time I laid eyes on it, though I have little idea of old I was, perhaps four or five.  My family had gone to Brookgreen to picnic and spend a leisurely summer Sunday afternoon in a lovely park.  We wandered through the outdoor collection of sculpture.  In those days Brookgreen Gardens was still relatively new, and the collection of sculpture was very much smaller than it now is.  Statuary, ranging in size from the colossal to the miniscule, fascinated me.  But none so much as “Alligator Bender.” 

For one thing, there were plenty of real live alligators in the zoo at Brookgreen, and not a few baby alligators were allowed to swim in small ponds throughout the grounds.  Adult alligators are ferocious creatures. No one wants to be alligator bait.  So the statue of a nude man sitting astride an alligator was itself a harrowing image on multiple levels.
Alligator Bender, front

The sculptor, Nathaniel Choate, carved out of Italian marble a hefty man, his left leg braced against the alligator’s head, his right leg bent backwards, his muscled back taut, his left hand clamping the gator’s jaw shut, his right arm curving around the tail as he bends the powerful body in an arc.[1]  The alligator for all its strength is no match for the bender.  This image of two combatants is all the more compelling as it sits in the middle of an inky pool whereon float lily pads and blossoms, the water gently spilling over the edge of a perforated brick wall.

All of these details registered on my young soul, of course, not my intellect.  Only now do I stop to parse the elements of the scene, pulling them apart to reflect on this curious wedding of masculine power and feminine depth, and the beauty emerging from both stone and water.  I knew nothing until well into my adulthood of style.  Only on my last trip, or maybe the one before, did I as viewer bring to Brookgreen an appreciation of the art deco style that dominates much of the sculpture there, reflecting the design motifs popular in the 1930’s. Choate’s statue is an excellent example of art deco.  He finished it in 1937, so it was practically new when I was born.  But it is not style so much as symbolism that even now makes me marvel at “Alligator Bender.”

In a way, the statue reflects a kind of dominion over nature that I find true to life but deeply disturbing.  Such unchecked human power damn near caused the alligator to disappear from the earth until, through the protection accorded endangered species, it rebounded and now thrives again.  But on another level, “Alligator Bender” leads me not so much to moralize about the environment as to confess awe at the image of the human male being totally vulnerable.  Perhaps alligator wrestling, like snake handling, seems mundane to those who have no fear of formidable reptiles. But even at my bravest, I would need some armor.  To struggle with nature naked is, I think, the dimension of the image that totally stunned me as a child.  It still does.

As I look back on it, Brookgreen was the first and perhaps the only place in my early years that I encountered the unclothed human form at all, certainly outside the restrained context of the farmhouse in which I lived.  I remember another statue that I particularly liked at Brookgreen, that of a friendly little faun, holding a pod of grapes.  If “Alligator Bender” fascinated me gazing upon it from a safe distance, the faun endeared himself to me because he was small and touchable, and unabashedly had a penis too. 

When Mrs. White took our fourth grade class to Brookgreen Gardens, some of the boys who perhaps had never been there found a reclining statute of a nude woman titillating. I was distressed at their snickers to the point of saying something to Mrs. White.   Rather than react by either sanctioning my concern or by upbraiding me for being a tattletale, she quietly pointed out that there was a way to appreciate the nude body as a work of art and that nothing was strange or wrong about that—in other words, don’t be upset because some kids don’t (yet) understand how to appreciate art.

What I now know is that nascent in me was a struggle to appreciate my body.  It was to take me two decades and a little more before I would be able even to begin to appreciate my body, and even more time before I got over some rather serious body shame.  Human anatomy beautifully presented at Brookgreen edged me forward in that struggle.

Come to think of it, it might not have been the alligator at all that gave the statue its power and charm for me.   I saw a naked man in a struggle.  I saw a human being in an unarmed and unarmored body.  He was vulnerable, struggling, fighting something fierce.  I think I am beginning to understand why, fumbling through photos to put on Facebook, I would choose one of “Alligator Bender” as a reflection of myself.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

[1] I am grateful for the website of Patricia Blackstock for this information,, accessed 1 October 2016.

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