Wet Paint: Sandy’s Devastation at Galleries Was Matched by Her Destruction of Studios

The pier at the end of Van Brunt Street in Red Hook. (Photo: Rozalia Jovanovic)

Last Thursday, two days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, the pier at the end of Van Brunt Street in Red Hook was covered in bright red dust that blew gently in the cold wind. The dust, a paint pigment, was all that remained of some paintings by Mexican artist Bosco Sodi, who, like many of the artists in the studios on the pier, had lost both artworks and materials to the storm.

Mr. Sodi, whose canvases caked with brightly dyed pigment and natural fibers debuted at Pace Gallery last December, drove to his studio after the storm and couldn’t believe what he saw. “The waterline was above my eye level; everything was just washed away. All my paintings were piled in one corner. Some of them miraculously survived: they were placed on top of wooden boxes and they had just luckily floated. All my art materials disappeared. Almost one year of my work now is gone.”

The devastation at the galleries in New York’s main art district, on the far West Side of Manhattan, may be the major business story of Sandy and the art world, but there is another story—the destruction of artists’ studios. Aside from superstars like Jeff Koons, whose warehouse-like space on 29th Street and 11th Avenue seems to have escaped the storm’s perils, artists with studios in Manhattan tend to have them on upper floors. In Brooklyn, though, which fits more artists’ budgets, many have ground-floor work spaces, and they were hard-hit.

On the afternoon when bits of Mr. Sodi’s artworks were drifting around the pier, many of the heavy vaulted metal doors of the artist studios there were shut and latched, as there was a meeting at the Kentler International Drawing Space on central Van Brunt Street. Congresswoman Nydia Velásquez (of New York’s 12th Congressional District for Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens) held the gathering to give residents, small business owners and local artists information, including lists of emergency contacts for federal and state disaster relief services, Con Ed and insurance companies.

But these weren’t necessarily going to help the artists, most of whom do not have insurance. “Everybody is applying for assistance from FEMA,” said Mr. Sodi in an email, “but I think nobody needs more debt right now. We just need all the facilities to get back to normal so we can start working again soon.”

Antonio Bilotta, an artist who works next door to Mr. Sodi, was in his studio on the pier, sweeping the floor around a few large sculptures of trees made from recycled pieces of wood, which had been soaked through with floodwater. He worried that after a few days, they might get bloated or chip.

“We worked all day to put everything like wood and plastic outside to stop the water,” he said. “But nobody can expect this storm, this disaster, I don’t think.” When he came to his Red Hook studio after Sandy from nearby Carroll Gardens, where he lives, he said, the water was gone but had left behind a huge mess.

“The water came up to here,” he said pointing halfway up a mixed-media work hanging on the wall. He grabbed a sponge and daubed it into a tire that is part of the artwork, soaking up water that had collected there. “One of the artists had a broken door, so everything went out with the sea and out on the pier. But what do you want to do?” he asked and laughed. “We’re starting again.”

STARTING OVER WILL TAKE a while for artist Dustin Yellin, also based in Red Hook. “[The water] started coming in by 5, 6 o’clock,” he said last Wednesday, standing outside his studio on Imlay Street wearing a blue beanie and glasses. “By 8, it was crazy. By 9:30, it was out of control. By midnight, it was slowly moving out. I saw everything flood away. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Despite evacuation warnings, he stuck it out in his Red Hook studio to be close to his art. As a result he saw nearly all of it get destroyed as the nearby Buttermilk Channel surged, flooding both his 15,000-square-foot studio on Imlay Street and his other space, known as The Intercourse. About 100 feet away, it’s a 25,000-square-foot Civil War-era building he’d refurbished and opened as an artist residency just 10 months ago.

Nevertheless, he wasn’t despairing. “When you lose whatever you’ve built in your life and your world,” he said, “it only makes you and your community stronger.”

For other artists, living in the boroughs had its own challenges. In nearby Gowanus, painter Deborah Kass had just gotten back from the opening of her solo show at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. She wrote in an e-mail that she was “wondering why after the best weekend of my life I have to deal immediately with the storm of the century, shit from the Gowanus [Canal] floating into my backyard and trees falling on my house!! damn!” She added, “I was too high from the show to worry about the hurricane till about 4 in the morning when I shot out of bed and started taping plastic to the doors and fussing with the basement.”

Artist Simen Johan, whose studio is in Gowanus, was stuck in Madrid during the storm. Though his studio at the Gowanus Lofts, an artist studio building, was fine, his car—a black Subaru station wagon parked outside—was destroyed. Mr. Johan, who shows with Yossi Milo in Chelsea, is scheduled to drive to a residency in Virginia later this month, and the sudden loss of his car might stymie those plans and set him back another $5,000 to $9,000. “My super has security camera photos. The whole lot was like an ocean.”

Wet Paint: Sandy’s Devastation at Galleries Was Matched by Her Destruction of Studios