A Glass … Full

Artists Kevin Kutch and Mary Ellen Buxton rekindle their artistic fire after a soaking by Hurricane Sandy.

By Larry Getlen

Publish Date: April 22, 2013

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Artist Kevin Kutch fashions a new piece of glass in his studio at Pier
Glass in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. Photo: Matt Slaby

Husband and wife glass artists Kevin Kutch and Mary Ellen Buxton sit by a cast-iron fireplace in their studio, known as Pier Glass, in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. Outside, a view of the Statue of Liberty is obscured by dense fog, evoking a melancholy mood that for some time has been all too familiar for the pair.

Kutch and Buxton’s studio by the water was devastated last October by Hurricane Sandy, which unleashed six-foot waves throughout their 5,500-square-foot space. During the two months that followed, they had no electricity, and this tiny fireplace was their saving grace.

“This was the only heat source,” says Kutch, loading a small wooden beam into the fire.

“We would huddle around it,” says Buxton. “When we ate, we heated our food here. Our lunches went on top, and we made a little grill. It was like camping indoors. Totally rustic.”

As they discuss their history, including how they met and received art training at MSU Denver in the early 1970s, and their experiences in the wake of Sandy, one can’t help but notice an optimism shining through the pair, especially impressive given that the hurricane cost them around a quarter of a million dollars in lost equipment, business and time.

 

A DENVER START

Kutch and Buxton met at MSU Denver as art students. “It was one of the top places for art because their professors were some of the best in the western area,” Buxton says.

“Bob Mangold, the sculpture instructor, was a huge influence on me,” says Kutch. “Almost every day I do something he taught me — from welding to basic design. Even though we had design courses, he was the one who tied the ideas in those courses together for me in a three-dimensional sense.”

Both also cite printmaking professor Bob Strohmeier as one who helped ignite their creativity.

“He said, ‘Experiment. Let things happen,’” recalls Buxton. “He always said to try things, because the only way you’re gonna find out is by failing. That was a huge influence on me. It’s how I’ve always worked.”

Kutch graduated with a B.A. in 1977, a year after Buxton, and they married in 1978. When Kutch got a job polishing and grinding glass at an art studio a few years later, he was entranced by the possibilities.

“It’s a fascinating material to make 3D sculptural work out of,” he says. “I did a number of pieces at the time that incorporated steel and metal with glass — not so much blown glass, but grinding and polishing a piece into some sort of jewel, then mounting it into a sculptural piece. It's an addictive material to work with.”

Kutch became a glass artist, and Buxton, an art teacher. They moved to New York around 1991, and in 1994 they opened their space in Red Hook, a one-square-mile neighborhood of retail stores, restaurants and galleries that helped revitalize the former shipping port and industrial district.

Both now make glass art full time.

The pair has done commission work for collectors and museums (they currently have work on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art), and their business ran smoothly until Sandy tore it asunder.

 

A NEW YORK RENEWAL

 After 2011’s Hurricane Irene filled their space with two inches of water, Buxton and Kutch took the warnings about Sandy seriously; they fortified their studio with sandbags, braced windows and added shutters. But these were no match for Sandy’s 7-10 foot surges, and their entire studio — like most of the neighborhood surrounding it — wound up under more than five feet of water.

“The amount of water in Red Hook was more than anybody thought,” says Buxton.  “Four-and-a-half blocks from here, there was a big white planter that said ‘Pier Glass’ on it. That was ours.”

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One of many pieces of glasswork produced by Kevin Kutch and Mary Ellen
Buxton of Pier Glass. Photo: Matt Slaby

“It floated up about five-and-a-half blocks,” says Kutch, “then moved back a block before settling there.”

When the couple returned to their studio the day after the storm, the debris was eight feet high. All of their work had been tossed to the floor and was in various stages of disarray. Much of it was cracked, and all of it was caked in sand, oil, and more.

They initially thought it would take 3-4 weeks to get everything back in order. Several days in, the full magnitude of the damage had become frighteningly clear.

“The deeper you got into trying to move things, the more you found that had been destroyed,” says Kutch, “and the more it sunk in how much it was going to take to put it back together.”

‌“We were in shock,” says Buxton. “It took a couple of days to start digesting the true horror of the whole mess.”

Kutch and Buxton had no water or sewer for two weeks and were without their own power for two months. They relied on flashlights, candles, and a neighbor’s generator that provided enough power for occasional light.

“Glass filled the tables in the kitchen,” says Buxton, “and you couldn’t even see them because they were encrusted in salt, and oils, and other odd trivia. There’s an elevator outside our door with hydraulic fluid, and when the water crested over where it was in the elevator, it coated everything close to it — which meant this studio. So everything was well oiled. We have still not finished cleaning all the glass.”‌

Somewhere between 300 and 400 pieces of glass had to be meticulously examined to determine if they could be saved, or if some tiny, irreparable scratch relegated them to the scrap heap.‌ Assisted by a constant stream of volunteers who came to Red Hook to help those affected by the storm, it took the couple six weeks just to sort through and clean out the mountains of debris, and to determine what was damaged beyond repair and what could be saved.

Kutch estimates they’re still six months away from being fully operational. But even the darkest moments have flickers of light, and in the wake of this tragedy, they’re hoping to take this opportunity to reassess their business and refocus their energies in a way that could potentially turn disaster into opportunity.

“We’re looking at updating,” says Kutch. “Since we have to rebuild a furnace, do we pull [our current one] out, or do we start new? Maybe we think about differences in design — making things more efficient.”

With recovery in their sights, Kutch and Buxton are confident they can get their business not only back to where it was, but hopefully beyond as well.

“It’s gonna take a while, but let’s move so we can make strides in new directions and hopefully open up new markets,” says Kutch.

“Because of this interruption, maybe we can get a new perspective,” he adds. “It’s like when you’re driving somewhere and the road’s closed, and you have to take a different road. Well, you never knew how beautiful it was down that road until you had to take it. So maybe this can work out.”

Pier Glass was one of the first businesses on Red Hook’s Beard Street Piers and has helped transform the neighborhood into a creative haven. Read more about how the creative arts have helped to revitalize Denver neighborhoods.