You Can’t Empty Out the Ocean

Ryan Burleson
Nov 4, 2014 · 11 min read

By Ryan Burleson

They could not have known that life would never be the same. Hurricane Sandy trotted the Atlantic coastline, threatening New York City for days, but the artists inhabiting Westbeth Artists Housing could not have known that an imminent storm surge would destroy countless works of their art, render useless hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery, or, devastatingly, remove the studio and storage spaces the tenants had utilized since the building opened in 1970. They could not have known that in the aftermath many of their salvaged works would be looted, or that cleaning crews would simply throw away wood sculptures and paintings and a smattering of other life works without giving the artists a chance to conserve them. They could not have known their capacity for resilience would face perhaps its greatest test, or that they just might find that capacity in one another.

This is how Acts of God work. At a certain point all information becomes useless in a storm of this magnitude — relentless Weather Channel updates and Twitter’s endless scroll can only be so helpful once a hurricane finally bears its teeth. The storms either land or they don’t, and when they do we watch like helpless moviegoers at a drive-in showing of Twister, except it’s our narratives bent to the will of some unseen mixture of climate change and bad luck.

“Are you kidding?” That’s 79-year-old sculptor Ralph Martel, incredulous when asked if he’s made peace with Sandy two years after the storm ravaged Westbeth. “How do you do that?” His answer and the oomph with which he delivered it highlights an important truth about traumatic events of this scale: The absence of television cameras does not, of course, indicate the event’s victims have recovered. Martel lost at least $100,ooo worth of machines and sculpture work when Sandy flooded his studio, and he’s since set up shop in what was formerly his living room. As a result Martel has been reduced to creating works that can be held in two hands — a far cry from the massive pieces he’d been commissioned to design for the majority of his career.

Martel’s story echoes that of David Seccombe, 83, who moved to Westbeth for the promise of a sculpture studio nearly forty five years ago. And why not? A New York Times report on Sandy’s destruction from March 2014 notes the sculpture studio boasts 23-foot-high ceilings — paradise for anyone creating visual art, especially in a rent-controlled far West Village artists’ colony.

Prior to Sandy, Seccombe worked primarily with wood, erecting large structures for site-specific projects. One of Westbeth’s longest-running tenants, the artist’s footprint was everywhere in the enormous shared space. The storm laid waste to much of it, including an entire vault full of documentation and photographs of existing projects and dreamt plans.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Seccombe sat at a small, cramped kitchen table in his loft-like apartment, and it took several minutes for the artist to reveal that we were sitting at his new work station — picture forcing Tom Brady to practice his routes in a corner of the Patriots’ locker room instead of gleaming Gillette Stadium and you’ll get a sense of scale here.

David Seccombe at home

Seccombe has been painting and drawing more these days, a move directly tied to the loss of machinery and space required to produce large-scale sculpture. “That’s what I’ve been concentrating on since this little disaster,” he says. The Connecticut native’s good-natured delivery obscured what felt like an opaque resignation, and only when he discussed the loss of storage at Westbeth was Seccombe’s heavy heart made plain.

“Once it happens it goes on and on — you can’t empty out the ocean, right?” he says. “It’s almost two blocks of cellar here that were completely full of water … It was all a big surprise to me, and it’s one of those things you can’t do anything about. I have no studio and no storage, and the combination is deadly. All artists need storage. I mean if they didn’t need a studio they’d still need storage.”

Named for the far West Village streets West and Bethune on which most of the 13-building industrial complex rests, Westbeth was renovated in the late ‘60s by the not-yet-star architect Richard Meier from the shell of what was formerly Bell Telephone Laboratories. So even before it housed nearly 400 painters, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers, actors, dancers, writers, and musicians, the site played host to seemingly boundless innovation. Scientists who worked on Einstein’s theory of relativity worked at Bell, as did Dr. Clinton J. Davisson, who, according to a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece from 1968, was awarded the Nobel Prize for research he conducted on the wave nature of matter. The color television and the transistor radio were developed here as well. The list goes on.

From its inception, Westbeth received significant funding from the National Council of the Arts (now the National Endowment for the Arts) and the J.M. Kaplan Fund, making it possible for artists as diverse as the photographer Diane Arbus and the frequent Miles Davis collaborator Gil Evans to pursue the creative life without much financial hindrance. Many of the original tenants still live at Westbeth, and in their time they’ve also seen the complex play host to the Martha Graham Dance Foundation, the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio, and The New School for Drama, among many other institutions. Westbeth joined the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

Courtesy Richard Meier and Partners

Loss is loss no matter the context, but Westbeth’s story makes Sandy’s impact all the more pronounced. For nearly half a century, the federal government, various arts foundations, and the City of New York have deemed Westbeth’s arts-centered community mission vital. In that light, one can easily sympathize with the uncertain reality facing Martel, Seccombe, and their peers: After Sandy, they have no guarantee of re-inhabiting the studios that have served as one of the complex’s prime sources of life since the Nixon administration. What sort of impact will this loss have on morale at Westbeth — a symbol of government belief in the arts? What about the West Village community its artists have inhabited for decades?

“We have no knowledge if any of the studios are coming back,” says George Cominskie, who has served as president of the Westbeth Residents Artist Council on-and-off since 1988. “For an artistic building, that’s very disconcerting — that two years out we have none of those answers.”

The Times story from March includes a quote from Westbeth Corporation Executive President Steve Neil in which he raised the possibility of setting aside 6,000 square feet in the basement to create a handful of new artist studios. Now Neil says in an email that Westbeth Corp. has “started the planning process to create legally usable studios” in that space, but that “no decision has been made concerning that project pending budget review.”

Neil also says a number of spaces have been used for temporary arts projects and that Westbeth Corp. has been “more than happy to accommodate those artists who need and can make use of our unimproved space and will continue to do so while our planning and review process continues.” In the same email, however, he did not respond to a question about whether specific entities have been contracted to lease the 70,000 square feet of space at Westbeth — including three-quarters of the basement — the Times piece notes was being marketed by Denham Wolf Real Estate Services as of March. That report suggested the sizable plot could attract as much as $2 million a year in rent.

While these issues continue to evolve, the artist Milda Vizbar is working to get back on her feet in a more exact sense. A resident of Westbeth for nearly three decades, Vizbar lost eighty percent of her work in the studio, which, while devastating, marked only the beginning of her Sandy travails.

“I’m in a wheelchair as a result of the storm,” Vizbar says. She sits amid stacks of books, supplies, and other artifacts that reflect a life lived in creative pursuit. Classical music floats from a nearby portable radio as the artist recounts in slow, steady stanzas the excruciating fall that inhibited her ability to walk in Sandy’s immediate aftermath (“no lights, no electricity, no phones, blood blood blood”); harrowing trips to the ER and multiple surgeries; and a five-month rehab stint that caused her to miss an important interview with FEMA. Vizbar’s work as a painter, sculptor, and print maker has taken a backseat to her recovery.

“It’s taking me much longer to survive now,” Vizbar says. “Ordinary things that I could handle very easily and quickly I have to ask some people to do for me, like change light bulbs … because my ability, since Sandy, has diminished. It’s returning, but very slowly, and that is a factor that upsets me very much. And I don’t want to go there. I have to get back to square one and be more independent. So what I’m doing is surviving and I’m being optimistic because things will change. They have to.”

Milda Vizbar at home

Vizbar recounted several instances of goodwill from other longtime Westbeth residents and Sandy volunteers that have helped her weather the struggle. In one instance, the performance artist Marilyn Worrell joined her on the ride to the ER and shared how she learned to “be in the moment” early in her training as an actor, a lesson that Vizbar applied to her own situation. “You know the old saying, ‘Yesterday is history and tomorrow is mystery,’” she says. “So this is the moment … I have a certain number of years to do certain things, and I have to think in those terms.” Worrell “lost everything,” according to Vizbar, which makes her encouragement all the more poignant.

Lawrence Salemme’s heroics also made an impression. Vizbar shares how he rushed to MoMA to consult the museum’s restoration experts on how to save damaged art once it became clear the cherished works in Westbeth’s basement were heavily tainted in the surge’s lasting murk. He returned and started wiping down paintings and drawings with chlorine, in one instance saving the work of a deceased man whose widow feared of “losing him again,” Vizbar says. Salemme did not respond to an interview request, but according to a January 2013 report published by NYU’s Institute for Fine Arts, he also worked with conservator Carolyn Tomkiewicz and several volunteers to treat paintings, sketchbooks, and photographs against mold outbreaks, an issue that haunted nearly everyone who stored work in the enormous Westbeth basement studios.

Two years removed, Marilyn Worrell’s carpe diem approach is one that painter Jayne Holsinger owns as well. Sitting at a metal table in Westbeth’s outer courtyard, she initially spoke with a casual warmth that belied the painful story she was about to tell. Holsinger cut her teeth working for the iconic designer Milton Glaser and designed books before transitioning full-time into teaching and painting in 2005, a scenario that functioned nicely before Sandy.

Jayne Holsinger in Westbeth’s outer courtyard

“Water went up to the ceiling and we couldn’t get down there for four days … it was just like a washing machine,” she says, nodding to how artwork stored in Westbeth’s towering basement mixed during the flood. Emotionally exhausted, Holsinger and a few assistants donned hazmat suits just after the surge and were able to salvage thirty pieces from the murk, twenty of which she off-loaded in a “flood sale” during Bushwick Open Studios. Still, much of the work she’d prized for nearly a decade was either destroyed or lost to looters and cleaning crews — their singular focus of debris removal coming at the expense of countless pieces that likely could have been saved.

“I kind of felt like I got back to ground zero,” Holsinger says. “It took away the illusion that I had work that was going to appreciate, which was kind of my nest egg … But you know it was a growth process, and I just had to get through it. I had also been through 9/11, so this was another test.”

She continued. “There was something about that defining moment in wiping out the artwork that has me really being keyed into ‘now’ and really making the most of my time. It was a little kick. There is not the premium of feeling that it’s ‘anytime in the future.’”

Al Cooke, a sculptor who trained under Theodore Roszak, says he’ll “never be back to normal” given the significant loss of tools and considerations of age. Cooke shows no sign of slowing down at 83, but he is aware that Sandy may have accidentally started a process for him of ensuring his relatives aren’t left with the task of removing or selling a lifetime’s worth of art projects and machinery once he’s gone.

“When someone in the building dies and their family can’t take the enormous work they’ve produced, or much of it, it winds up in a dumpster,” he says. “So I’m working on a small scale and I’m trying to minimize the tools that I have, the sizes, to help make arrangements for disposal.”

Cooke has a generous smile and a quiet, infectious laugh. Sitting with him on makeshift seats cobbled from the industrious clutter of his studio, it is clear that, while Sandy was undoubtedly a nuisance, no Act of God could weaken the man’s spirit. Cooke appeared inoculated from bitterness, and refused every opportunity to indulge in self-pity during an interview. Instead he insistently turned his gaze toward those who had suffered worse or had helped him — for instance, Lawrence Salemme.

Al Cooke in his studio

By nullifying the majority of Westbeth’s studio and storage space, Hurricane Sandy may have also have started the process of turning this complex into yet another lost totem of a City increasingly distanced from its artistic heritage. Without space to work, many Westbeth artists — the majority of whom are over 60 — have resorted to a “nomadic existence,” according to George Cominskie, moving from studio to studio across the city until management delivers the final word. Some, like Ralph Martel, made the hard choice to lessen the comfort of their homes in service to their work.

Still, most Westbeth residents interviewed for this article spent more time highlighting the good deeds of their neighbors and their plans for moving forward in Sandy’s wake than railing against these larger issues. Resident Paul Binnerts even wrote a play — Lost and Found: Scenes From After the Flood — which, according to Binnerts’ wife, Lost and Found director Nancy Gabor, “was a metaphor for all of us, about loss and love and recovery.”

They could not have known that life would never be the same after Sandy, but Westbeth residents know what family looked like before she hit.

    Ryan Burleson

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