In 2004, Andrew Lyght lost his 8000-square foot loft in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and had to use a portion of the money from a prestigious, $150,000 Barnett Newman Foundation grant to crate up his life, a task that involved purchasing three shipping containers for his large-scale sculptures and storing them on a friend’s farm in Vermont. Lyght spent the next year in Italy, including three months as an artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. But before leaving for Europe, he traveled to Kingston to advise his friend and fellow sculptor Susan Crowe about her planned purchase of a Queen-Anne-style house on Ponckhockie Street. At that time he had no idea that he himself would be putting down roots in the same city four years later.
Returning from overseas, Lyght was “fashionably homeless,” helping with the restoration of several friends’ houses, including Crowe’s. He eventually established a base at her Kingston residence, where he worked on his art in the attic. The loss of his loft meant he was no longer able to construct the large-scale pieces that had established his reputation. So he reinvented himself, learning how to make 3-D drawings using CAD software, which were then incorporated into digital photographs. The new work was so successful he won a grant from the Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation in 2010, and that fall he purchased an 1830s brick barn on Catherine Street.
Lyght stripped the building down to its original shell, taking his cues for the design of the combination residence, studio, art-storage space, and gallery from its classic proportions. Supported by means of a unique x-shaped framework attached to a central beam and a steel pole, the barn turned out to be perfectly plumb, not having budged an inch in 180 years. The 33-by-27-foot structure is relatively modest in scale compared to the sprawling lofts Lyght had in the city, but he views it as a perfect complement to his art. “The best place to see work is in the artist’s studio,” he said. “Frank Stella had a studio on Thirteenth Street, and it was wonderful.”
Lyght is an old hand at designing raw spaces, having learned carpentry growing up poor in his native Guyana (although art quickly took over, with the artist winning national competitions starting at age ten and selling a painting to the government when he was just 17; the work was subsequently exhibited at Expo 67). He called his first studio in New York, a 5000-square-foot loft in Williamsburg, “The Box,” and his subsequent space in Greenpoint, one of 16 spaces he renovated in exchange for free space from the landlord, “Unfinished.”
Moving in next month
The Ponckhockie building, which he expects to move into next month, is dubbed the “Lyght Box,” a simultaneous tribute to his creative process, the flood of natural light, and the sublime viewing possibilities resulting from the combination of the two.
Though boarded up and abandoned for more than 20 years, the distinctive brick barn has long been an object of desire, with at least two dozen people on former owner Ben Wigfall’s list of potential buyers. In 1975, Wigfall had purchased the building, which housed the mules that pulled the wagonloads of bluestone in what was then a major local industry. He operated a printing press on the first floor and used it as a teaching facility for local kids before closing the facility in 1989.
After meeting Wigfall at the opening of an art show in Woodstock in 2009, Lyght jokingly told him, “Put me at the top of the list.” He ended up buying the building for $80,000 last September, putting down a modest down payment and financing the rest with four private loans, an unusual arrangement based on the creative financing used by Lyght’s mom and which he had employed to obtain his Williamsburg loft. Intrigued by the concept, Crowe agreed to be one of the financiers, and approached a few friends.
Lyght had earned Crowe’s trust, having borrowed money before and promptly paid it back. Plus, Crowe, who teaches sculpture and drawing at Queens College, wanted to support Lyght’s venture, feeling that having an artist of his stature in the neighborhood would be a boon to Kingston.
Working with lawyer Brenda Hagedorn over a period of three months, Crowe was able to incorporate different terms of financing, which ranges from five to 20 years, into the filed mortgage. The other lenders are Dina Helal, a painter and museum educator in Brooklyn who was Crowe’s neighbor in Greenpoint before she moved to Kingston in October 2005; Eleanor Siegel, a psychologist based in Saugerties; and Judith Deming, a Kingston resident who worked as a family advocate in the court system before her retirement.
A complex renovation
As Lyght began work on the building, a process that started with removing a foot of pigeon excrement that covered the attic floor, he made friends with several locals who got involved with the project, repeating the pattern he had established in Brooklyn. Welder Wayne Harding helped with the demolition and introduced Lyght to steel fabricator Steve Cross, who made the two floating steel staircases and decorative iron railings designed by Lyght. Neighbor Barry North helped with advice and checks in every day “to make sure I’m not doing anything too crazy.” Dustin Moynehan, who lives around the corner and is a graduate of the School of Visual Art, designed a logo for Lyght.
To preserve the integrity of the structure, Lyght installed oak columns and a series of freestanding walls on the two main floors, which divide the space into work and storage areas but don’t disrupt the open plan. The two steel staircases, whose railings and treads will be capped with oak, also preserve the free flow of space and light. A series of cutout frames (filled with fluted glass along the bathroom side) similarly divide the space without confining it, and the floating half floor of the attic overlooks the wood-burning stove in the kitchen, which also increases heat efficiency. The sleeping quarters and office are tucked under the eaves and the single window provides a magnificent view of the Hudson River.
Lyght also kept the shell intact by not adding windows. He installed French doors in the three large openings on the second floor, where the hay was once lofted; the doors open onto charming balconies adorned with the aforementioned railings — an Italian touch that recalls the hill towns of Tuscany. The chestnut rafters are left exposed, scraped down and coated with polyurethane, and boards of mahogany, discovered in Crowe’s basement, line the wall behind the second-floor stair, lending warmth.
To make the building energy-efficient, Lyght insulated the foot-thick brick walls with foam, plywood and drywall, creating a wall 17 5/8” inches thick. “I’ll be living and breathing with the work in the environment in which it’s made,” he said.
A varied career
Lyght’s resourcefulness as designer, builder and artist (his large-scale works were constructed so that they could be easily broken down) dates back to his childhood in Guyana. He grew up just outside Georgetown, raised by a single mother who worked as a seamstress — a job that enabled her to put food on the table, but not much more. To compensate for his shyness and stutter, Lyght started drawing and painting at age seven. He earned pocket money by fixing bikes and building kites (an influence on the huge, colorful assemblages of canvas, twine, and cords that he created decades later in several high-profile commissions, one of which was for the atrium of the Embassy Suites in Times Square).
At age 13, he found a mentor and surrogate father in Edward Burrowes, an art professor at Queens College in Georgetown who was impressed by the painting the boy had submitted to a national competition. Through Burrowes’ help, Lyght studied art at the college as a teenager, training that helped him win both of the country’s top art prizes in 1968, when he was just 19. The next year he moved to Montreal, with help from a friend he’d met who worked in the city, subsequently studying at the Bronfman Center for the Arts on a scholarship, where he had his own studio, and finding his way as an artist. Being in a big North American city caused Lyght to make unusual connections with his homeland — the naked trees of winter reminded him of sugar-cane stalks after they’d been burnt prior to the harvest and the shimmering fall foliage conjured up a rice field on a sunny day.
He moved into his first loft in 1971 and made large, hard-edged paintings, which were shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. New York beckoned, and in 1977 Lyght arrived at Port Authority with $150 in his pocket, a knapsack on his back, and a single artwork that folded into a portable case. He stayed with friends in Soho, got a job as a messenger, rented a room in the Village, and met filmmaker and art impresario Emile de Antonio, who introduced him to art historian and critic Barbara Rose (who also has local connections). Through Rose’s help Lyght got a studio at P.S. 1. In 1979 he showed his work in a group exhibition alongside pieces by Robert Motherwell, Nancy Graves and other art-world heavyweights.
After moving to his Williamsburg loft in 1980, he got his green card with the help of gallery owner Leo Castelli (although Lyght didn’t become a citizen until 2009). He started constructing bamboo pieces that projected off the a wall, which led to his free-hanging pieces suspended on cords. One of these was commissioned for the staircase of St. Peter’s Church in the Citicorp Building. His first solo show at the Nassau County Museum was followed by commissions for IBM and other corporate clients; his pieces are among other places in the collections of the Pompidou Center, the World Bank, and the Smith College Museum of Art.
Some of Lyght’s artworks reside in Crowe’s studio. A series of large-scale works on paper are imprinted with orange transfers from rusting objects. A black panel, inserted in an industrial metal frame, is covered in a network of fine, swooping lines that simultaneously seem to derive from biomorphic, geometric, machine and sexual forms.
Lyght’s work is hardly an afterthought to his interior architectural design work, but that’s the subject of another story for when the renovation is complete and the artist is again focused on his art. That’s not to say the barn is entirely disconnected from the art.
Whatever he’s working on, Lyght brings the same resourceful creativity and high standards to the endeavor. “The structure is so beautiful, in a way it determined what I should do,” Lyght said, referring to the renovation. “It took awhile to get it right.”