Ruth Reader

Hurricane Irene leaves Christopher Ries’s home and studio underwater

“I’m still standing in the midst of a raging stream that is deafening,” says artist and glass sculptor Christopher Ries, whose home and studio were inundated with water in the wake of Hurricane Irene, and continues to be threatened by high water. The GLASS Quarterly Hot Sheet reached Ries on his cellphone today, and the sound of the rushing water was audible. Weeks after the hurricane, he is facing further potential water damage. In the last 48 hours, two flash floods have menaced his studio and home, both of which have already been so severely damaged that total refurbishment is planned. Inside his studio, glass models litter the floor and a heavy antique engraving machine is overturned, everything covered in a thick muddy sludge. “It’s hard to even describe the kind of setback that this is because of the mud and the total destruction of all the utilities in my home and in my studio.”

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400"] The sodden interior of Ries's studio in the days after the floodwaters receeded, leaving thick mud everywhere.[/caption]

With the help of family, friends, and a few of his employees, Ries is working to gut and rebuild his home and studio. While his home was flood insured, his studio was not. He is not currently receiving aid from any organization and doesn’t expect to. “You would think that we’d be on the computer trying to get a grant from some organization or another, but you just don’t have time,” he says. All of his time is devoted to restoration.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400"] Models used for casting are covered in mud in his studio.[/caption]

Ries did his best to prepare, and his precautions were key to avoiding a total loss.When the hurricane was making its way north, Ries monitored storm updates vigilantly. At first he wasn’t worried. In the past, floodwaters had crested as high as 37 feet without damaging his property. Initial reports estimated Hurricane Irene would bring enough rain to raise the Susquehanna to roughly 34 feet. It wasn’t until 24 hours before the storm hit that reporters were predicting over 40 feet of water to hit the region. That was when Ries took action. “I got people from the church down here. I had people from my studio all working all night long getting equipment out, things out of my home. Next day the water’s rising, rising, rising into my studio, into my kitchen. The water finally crested at 44 feet. Forty-four feet! Anything we couldn’t get out was lost or compromised,” he says.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400"] What wasn't taken to higher ground was lost, including many antiques and collectibles.[/caption]

Luckily, Ries and his crew were able to save the large grinding and polishing machines necessary for creating the large scale prismatic glass sculptures that Ries is known for. His artwork centers on the physics and metaphysics of light and glass, or the way in which glass refracts, transmits, amplifies, and focuses light. In his independent home studio, he creates smaller works and casts models of works to be cast at Schott Optical studio. For now, the Schott studio and its staff are on standby until Ries returns. While the staff assists with polishing and grinding work, Ries says he has to have his hand in all aspects of production.

“I lay ‘em out, cut ‘em, I take them from conception to the end,” he says. The sudden hiatus comes at an inopportune time for Ries, whose work is supposed to appear in the Pan Amsterdam art, antique, and design fair, where his work will be exhibited by the Etienne Gallery at the end of November. He says he’ll try and send as much artwork over as he can, but he fears that he’ll be short on the number of pieces he intended to show. He’s also worried it will affect his reputation. “It’s really terrifying because something like this can be career-threatening. You can’t show up a day late.”

Despite the worry, Ries says he thinks he’ll come back better than ever. He feels lucky that his family survived and that he has a home to rebuild. “My shop foreman, his house was swept down the river. He has nothing. As water was coming in my front doors, I’m looking across my lawn to the Susquehanna, I was watching house after trailer and structure after tree just sailing across the landscape in front of me down the river.”

As far as his artwork is concerned, he’s unsure how it will ultimately affect his work. All experience being cumulative, he says, in some way it will affect his work somewhere down the line.

—Ruth Reader