ISLAMORADA -- Artist Larry Herlth builds scale replicas of the Florida Keys' offshore lighthouses as a way to promote their preservation. His work has earned him the moniker "Lighthouse Larry," and his lighthouses can be found on public display in Marathon, Islamorada and Key Largo.
But for the next few months, Herlth will turn his attention away from those six local lighthouses and toward Newtown, Conn., where the community continues to cope with the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre.
Of course, a lighthouse will be involved in Herlth's Newtown work as well.
Herlth has been tapped by two Newtown nonprofits to build a 20-foot scale replica of the Nauset Lighthouse on Cape Cod. The 48-foot-tall red and white light was the favorite of Ben Wheeler, who was 6 years old when he was among the 26 Sandy Hook students and staff members murdered by Adam Lanza during his bloody rampage through the school.
The nonprofit Ben's Lighthouse, which seeks to assist the children of Newtown in the healing process, was established shortly after the massacre in Wheeler's honor.
"Ben Wheeler was an irrepressible young boy who dreamed of being an architect, a paleontologist and a lighthouse keeper all at once," according to benslighthouse.org. "In public settings like school or church, people always knew when Ben was around. There was nothing on his dial between one and eleven; nothing moved quickly enough for him, and the joy he showed in his headlong rush through life was contagious."
The Nauset replica will be placed near the playground of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, which is affiliated with Ben's Lighthouse.
Herlth, who is doing the replica for free, said he is moved to have the opportunity.
"I'm really looking forward to this," he said last week. "I'm so honored for them to ask me to do this."
The job will involve hundreds of hours of work, Herlth said. When it's completed in July, the Nauset replica will have a diameter of 7 feet at the base and 6 feet at the top. It will be made of plywood wrapped in aluminum.
Ben's Lighthouse spokesman Rick Haylon said the lighthouse will stand as a memorial to Wheeler and all that Newtown has lost. It will also be a beacon of hope.
"The lighthouse has become a metaphor for what we're trying to do and that is guiding and protecting the youth of this community," Haylon said.
The connection between Herlth and Ben's Lighthouse was forged by the second nonprofit involved in the project, Emerald Sketch Art, which provides art therapy to Sandy Hook students and their families. Nicole Wilcox, whose father Jim is an Islamorada backcountry fisherman, met Herlth while visiting over the winter.
Both Wilcox and Herlth said they would like to give the children of Islamorada a chance to experience the lighthouse, and perhaps send messages to their counterparts in Newtown prior to the replica being transported to Connecticut.
Then, once it is stationed at Trinity Episcopal Church, the lighthouse will become part of the art-therapy process. Members of the Newtown community might paint the model. Commemorative bricks will be placed around the lighthouse. And its interior will be large enough to enter. Wilcox said Herlth might coat the inside with chalkboard so that children can draw or write messages.
The nonverbal process of creating art helps heal the symptoms of trauma, Wilcox explained.
"It's a traumatized community," she said. "As sad as that is, it's real. It's not a normal ballgame."