DARIEN — In August 2014, Darien resident Robert Keene was visiting the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk with his girlfriend when he noticed a sign advertising the annual “Festival of the Lighthouses” contest.

“I’ve always liked lighthouses. I’ve always collected little lighthouse figurines, stuff like that,” he said. “So, I was like ‘I could do that. I could build a lighthouse.’ ”

Keene, 27, entered the contest that year with an entry titled “Deep Wood Island” which depicted a classic red and white striped lighthouse with a tree by its side and a ship in its harbor. The next year in 2015, Keene decided to get more creative.

“I saw what other people had done and how mine was just a lighthouse,” he said. “People got really hardcore into detail so I thought why not go all out the next year?”

His entry “Surviving the Storm” was housed in shadow box that had lightning go off on a timer and a sound machine for thunder, accompanied by a plastic wrap sea made stormy with cotton ball waves. Keene’s creative entry took first place and a $1,500 prize.

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‘Festival of Lighthouses’

Voting for the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk’s 15th Annual “Festival of the Lighthouses” contest goes from now until Jan. 16.

“Frozen in Time” by Robert Keene, with help from Ashley Hoefer, Clayton Ludwig and Matt Banke, is among the 13 large handcrafted beacons in the holiday display.

The contest/exhibit works like a juried art show except that thousands of Maritime Aquarium visitors are the jury. All guests who visit between Nov. 19 and Jan. 16 get a ballot and the chance to vote for their favorite entry.

The 2016 “Festival of Lighthouses Contest” is free with Maritime Aquarium admission, which is $22.95 for adults, $20.95 for youths (13-17) & seniors (65+), and $15.95 for children ages 3-12.

For more details , call 203-852-0700 or go online to www.maritimeaquarium.org.

This year, the security officer is vying for first place again with his submission “Frozen in Time” which depicts the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a freighter that sank in a storm on Lake Superior in November 1975 and killed all 29 crew members. Keene used candle wax to make the lighthouse look like its covered in ice, an ode to frozen lighthouses that occur on the Great Lakes. He used stones and plastic seaweed glued to the base of the platform to represent the lake floor. This year’s sound machine recreates the sound of the wind blowing on a lake and a foghorn for a chilling effect.

Both research and childhood memories inspired Keene’s entry for this year’s competition.

“I came across Great Lake lighthouses where in the wintertime, the water will come off the lake and form a spray and it’ll be encased in ice,” said Keene. “I thought it would be a cool idea. The reason I picked the boat was I watched a documentary on the Edmund Fitzgerald with my dad and so I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the ship and how it sank and I thought it’d be a great tribute because if I’m going to do a Great Lake lighthouse, might as well put a ship next to it.”

Keene builds the lighthouse structure himself out of Styrofoam circles, cut out by his friend, Clayton Ludwig, who owns a stenciling machine and traces the circles. Keene then glues the circles together to form the lighthouse structure.

“What’s painstaking is gluing each individual circle together because there’s 30-35 circles and you have to make sure they’re aligned perfectly, because otherwise the whole tower is crooked,” said Keene. “It looks like a Leaning Tower of Pisa. That’s the only strenuous part I would say.”

Then Keene paints the entire structure and platform before adding details. Keene uses model items bought at a hobby shop, as well as more creative elements like candle wax ice or flat stones from Candlewood Lake, glued on over the course of two days to make the floor of a lake. Keene said he’s spent from $200 to $500 on materials for the competition.

Keene’s experience model railroading has helped him in his crafting. Still, he was surprised when “Surviving the Storm” received the most votes out of over 20 other entries in last year’s competition.

“There’s a lot of people who’ve been doing it for many years,” he said. “They’ve been doing it a long time, I only popped in three years ago. It was pretty shocking. They call you and let you know beforehand, so I knew I had placed in top six, but I had no idea I was going to win.”

Some competitors design their lighthouses to appeal to voters, especially the young ones who are drawn to the Aquarium. Keene said his focus when creating his models, is an attention to detail.

“People look at it as how they’re going to get the most votes,” he said. “I do it more toward the adults, but it’s really cool if a kid recognizes it. I try to show the details. I just wanted to go more toward realistic and detail. I think that’s the big strive.”

Keene said he’s “running low on ideas,” so his future in the contest is up in the air. Still, he hopes to continue for the enjoyment of creating the entries.

“It’s just fun to do,” he said. “I have free time, I like lighthouses. It’s nice to win, but I do it because I like building the lighthouse.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata