Beyond the Frame: Something to Remember

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He sinks down deeper and deeper. All around him it’s blue, blue, blue, blue. At this depth all red, yellow, and orange light is filtered out. It’s dark, like you’re in a gray room with only two small windows. And then – there it is – it begins to come into view. Hulking and cave like, upside down and covered in marine growth.

It could almost look natural if you didn’t know what this was. He steps along the seafloor, it’s solid but the sediment still billows slightly with each step. Then he moves forward, slowly, gently – hand outstretched.

Hand meets iron.

In this fleeting moment of connection, he imagines the history, the sailors who had preceded him in service to their country 140 years before, some whose remains lay resting here at this sanctuary. He snaps back to the present. He has work to do, he is Boatswain’s Mate First Class, Diver First Class Michael “Simo” Simonetti and he is working to help raise USS Monitor’s turret in the summer of 2002. But before he gets back to work, he thinks,

“This is a moment I’ll never forget.”

Painting a Memory

Art is fascinating in the way that it allows us to peer into the mind of an artist, see the world through their eyes, through the lens of their creativity. But there’s something very special about an artist allowing us to peek into their memory, especially a life changing one like this. These works can have a different feeling to them, the artist painting them with the emotions they felt at the time –  excitement, anticipation, poignance. Sometimes these works are slightly different from the exact memory, depicting not just how something was, but how it felt in that moment.

“USS Monitor Wreck, 2002, Graveyard of the Atlantic” by Michael “Simo” Simonetti. Oil on canvas, 2013. | The Mariners’ Museum and Park, 2013.0003.000001.

Like this work –  “USS Monitor Wreck, 2002, Graveyard of the Atlantic” by Michael “Simo” Simonetti. In this work we see the scene – a memory – but from a sort of out-of-body experience. The artist and the viewer watch from a distance as his past self experiences this defining moment – touching USS Monitor’s iconic turret before it was raised from its resting place twenty years ago to this day, August 5th. 

Detail of Simonetti in “USS Monitor Wreck, 2002, Graveyard of the Atlantic” by Michael “Simo” Simonetti. Oil on canvas, 2013. | The Mariners Museum and Park, 2013.0003.000001.

A Worthy Mission

Two divers are lowered into the water on the diving stage. Monitor 2000 Expedition. | NOAA, MONITOR Archives MD000209.

On this day, during this mission, Simonetti was on a mixed gas Heli-ox dive 235 feet to the seafloor of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. There in the sanctuary with him was a Master Diver and two other saturation divers. He had two important jobs: to run a cable around the hull, so it could later be cut away to allow the turret to be raised to the surface, and then to look for artifacts.

Underwater view of a diver working on the hull of USS MONITOR, before it was cut away to expose the turret. 2002 | NOAA MONITOR Archives, MD001248.

In this painting though, despite the reality of the situation, Simonetti has presented himself alone. I had the opportunity to speak with the artist and when I asked him why he chose to paint this work in this way, he described to me the feeling of privacy in this moment. The hard dive helmet he wore limited his field of vision which was already obscured by the water that he described as being like a cloudy day. 

A Tale to Pass on

In this work, he’s set the scene as he felt in that fleeting moment – like there was nothing but him and this piece of history. As a sailor himself, he felt a connection, this was a part of his heritage as a sailor. But also in this moment he thought, “This is every little kid’s dream – diving on a sunken shipwreck”.

“USS Monitor Wreck, 2002, Graveyard of the Atlantic” by Michael “Simo” Simonetti. Oil on canvas, 2013. | The Mariners’ Museum and Park, 2013.0003.000001.

In the contrast of the shadowy hull against the intense blue, with the light from the surface trickling down on this wreck, we feel the significance, the excitement – the adventure. This is like something out of a storybook, a tale to pass on, something to remember. 

Diving into Art

“Michael ‘Simo’ Simonetti”, 2002. Courtesy of NOAA, MONITOR Archives.

Michael Simonetti began his naval career in Helicopter Search & Rescue, but applied to dive school 3 times to get out of that field. He told me how this decision came after losing far too many friends and attending far too many funerals.

But in dive school and as his diving career began, he recalls how much fun he had, “High adventure” he told me, laughing. He thought back to when he was a little kid when he would watch Jacques Cousteau and dream of being an oceanographer.

Diver working on MONITOR looks at camera and holds up a Shaka sign meaning “hang loose”. MONITOR 2001 Expedition | NOAA MONITOR Archives – MD001134.

As for art – that started in childhood too – he always loved drawing and later would do commissions for friends. Once his time in the Navy was done, Simonetti dove fully into art, pursuing a degree in painting and printmaking at San Diego State University. This work came from his school portfolio. And the prompt: “Paint a memory that will always be with you”. 

Touching the Past

Detail of Simonetti with his arm outstretched, touching USS MONITOR’s Turret in “USS Monitor Wreck, 2002, Graveyard of the Atlantic” by Michael “Simo” Simonetti. Oil on canvas, 2013. | The Mariners’ Museum and Park, 2013.0003.000001.

In this work, Simonetti reflects on the moment when he stretched out his black gloved hand, touching the algae covered, chocolatey brown and rust colored hull of USS Monitor. The moment he saw the indentations on the turret made by cannonballs during battle 140 years earlier. The moment he connected with its crew, and with the legacy of those who have served and gone before him.

“USS Monitor crew members cooling on deck in the James River, Virginia, July 9 1862.” by James F. Gibson. The Mariners’ Museum and Park, MS0016-02-003-038.

He painted this work to commemorate the history that he touched – that he helped to save. And not only that, but also to celebrate this memory – a story he will be proud to share with his now two year-old granddaughter.

Something to Remember

His service in the Navy, both before in Helicopter Search and rescue and later, as a part of the USS Monitor Recovery team of divers is a part of his story, his legacy. But it’s also so much bigger than that – he and the role that he played in his two weeks on this mission affected not just his own personal history, but also became entwined with USS Monitor’s 160-year history. On this mission too, he and the “conga line of divers from all over the world” as Simonetti described them, became close – joined together through their shared dedication and commitment to this incredible feat. 

Some of the amazing people and teams who made this feat possible!

The service of all of the expedition participants over the years: NOAA, the US Navy, the archaeologists, the engineers, the divers, our own Museum team, and so many more made this mission possible. Together, they realized the amazing feat of finding USS Monitor, and recovering its turret, as well as countless other artifacts.

They laid the foundation for the preservation, conservation, and stewardship of these objects so that we can better understand them and share their story with the world. And that, for “Simo” and so many others – is something to be proud of, that – is a story to pass on. That – is something to remember. 

“USS Monitor Wreck, 2002, Graveyard of the Atlantic” by Michael “Simo” Simonetti. Oil on canvas, 2013. | The Mariners’ Museum and Park, 2013.0003.000001.

Be sure to watch the full episode here and stay tuned for new episodes the first Friday of each month!