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Martha Graham Co. and Westbeth Artists Try to Save Work Damaged by Sandy

By Andrea Swalec | November 12, 2012 9:27pm

WEST VILLAGE — As water surged over the banks of the Hudson River, Westbeth Artists' Housing resident Christina Maile and her neighbors peered into their basement art studios through a high window on Oct. 29, and watched the water slowly fill the room.

"I saw my sculptures floating," said Maile, a sculptor and printmaker who moved into the landmarked artists' complex in 1970, its first year. "It was like being in a shipwreck, to see your stuff floating into the blackness."

Maile is one of more than 60 Westbeth artists whose basement studios and storage spaces were drowned under more than 8 feet of water by Hurricane Sandy, destroying as much as 40 years' worth of work they were still laboring to retrieve and dry out Monday afternoon.

The Martha Graham Dance Company, which moved into Westbeth in July, suffered an estimated $4 million in flood damage to sets and more than 1,500 costumes stored in an adjacent basement area.

Sets designed by frequent Graham collaborator Isamu Noguchi and costumes worn by Graham herself were among the pieces submerged in water for days, artistic director Janet Eilber said Monday.

Dancers who volunteered to sift through the debris were devastated, she said.

"Each piece has a particular emotional importance, particularly for those of us who have worn them and danced on stage with them," Eilber said.   

Westbeth artists are grappling with the same emotions, George Cominskie, president of the Westbeth Artist Residents Council, said as he looked over piles of wrecked art.

"The devastation to our artists is overwhelming," he said.

The magnitude of the storm damage caught Westbeth by surprise, Cominskie said. Artists who use the basement of the complex set their work on tables before the storm hit, expecting a few feet of water at most.

Westbeth as a whole, which houses more than 800 people, was without heat, electricity, hot water or working elevators for days. Some residents did not have electricity until Saturday, 12 days after the storm hit, Cominskie said.

Those services, with the exception of working elevators, have been restored and the building's structure is sound, Westbeth executive director Steve Neil said Monday.

"The place is built like a bomb shelter," Neil said, noting that engineers and architects had examined the building.

Now that the water has been pumped out Westbeth's basement, art conservators are assessing the damage and telling artists how they can try to save their work by doing everything from letting it dry in the sun to having it freeze-dried to prevent the spread of dangerous mold.

Artist Susan Berger, 68, spread out her large, colorful pieces of fiber art in the Westbeth's rear courtyard Monday afternoon. She said the storm had threatened her "life's work" and her favorite pieces.

"You wish the water had picked and chosen," she said.

Karen Santry, a Westbeth artist and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology who has lived in the complex for 23 years, said she lost $300,000 worth of equipment she used to make large-scale installations.

"It's just horrible," she said.

Westbeth artists lost more than their art, sculptor Jonathan Bauch, 72, said. Losing their studios was just as painful, said the artist, whose delicate steel sculptures were covered in rust.

"The idea that I can't work there anymore is more important than losing the sculptures," he said.

Maile, the sculptor, was able to retrieve just one of her sculptures: a wooden shield she made more than 30 years ago. Having her work destroyed was like losing a personal history.

"It was like looking at my youth and seeing part of it gone," she said.

As Eilber, of Martha Graham Dance Company, looked at mildewed costumes used in the ballet "Appalachian Spring," she said the show must go on. The company will borrow costumes from other dance groups for performances scheduled for next month.

"We're definitely keeping dancing," she said. "This isn't going to stop us."