Flameproof: Pratt Students Affected by Fire Display Final Projects at Manhattan Gallery

Athena Castillo and Milo Wissig, two senior students at Pratt whose work was destroyed during the Feb. 15 fire, had their new pieces displayed at the "Flameproof" exhibition, held at the Seagram Gallery in Midtown East. (Photo by Amanda Woods)
Athena Castillo and Milo Wissig, two senior students at Pratt whose work was destroyed during the Feb. 15 fire, had their new pieces displayed at the “Flameproof” exhibition, held at the Seagram Gallery in Midtown East. (Photo by Amanda Woods)

After a four-alarm fire ravaged the sixth floor of Pratt Institute’s main building in February, damaging some students’ artwork and completely destroying others, students worked tirelessly to start over again. Three months later, the efforts landed their senior thesis projects a prestigious exhibition space in an exclusive Manhattan gallery.

The exhibition, appropriately titled “Flameproof,” featured 100 pieces created by 44 painting and drawing students before and after the fire. The works were on display from May 9 until May 14 at the Seagram Gallery on Park Avenue, a location secured with the help of art dealer Larry Gagosian and real estate developer Aby Rosen.

Though the fire left many students distraught, they considered the exhibition the best consequence of the blaze.

“We wouldn’t have had a big show like this,” said Milo Wissig, 25, who lost all the artwork he made at Pratt in the fire.

Graduating seniors usually mount individual exhibitions on campus throughout the spring semester, but the fire made that impossible. So Pratt’s administration, faculty and students decided to organize a small group exhibition outside the school, with the partnership of the Gagosian Gallery.

“It was important for me to get involved and help the Pratt students move forward,” Gagosian said in a release. “I, too, have experienced loss due to a fire and was inspired by their perseverance to continue to create art.”

Perseverance was key for Athena Castillo, 23, who lost not only her artwork in the fire, but also pieces of her family’s history. Her original thesis show, a set of installations based on her Cuban and Dominican culture, included many photos and pieces of jewelry that belonged to her deceased grandfather and aunt, she said.

“I was grieving not so much the loss of my supplies or my paintings, but those family things I couldn’t get back,” Castillo said.

She first found out about the fire at 6 a.m. on the day it happened, when people started calling her, asking her if she was all right. She couldn’t believe the news at first, she said, adding that the destruction wasn’t real to her until she went to Pratt and saw it firsthand, realizing that she couldn’t enter the studio where she kept all of her projects dating back to freshman year.

Faced with a combination of shock and grief, she and many of her classmates responded in a similar way: They just kept working. But the nature of Castillo’s work changed since the fire. She couldn’t emotionally bring herself to paint again until about two weeks ago, she said.

“I just couldn’t get myself to start buying paint and brushes when I had thousands and thousands of dollars already invested in the paints that I liked and the brushes that I liked. And then, when I did go and purchase it, it was just so hard for me to sit down with a blank canvas and do it,” Castillo said. “So the way I started working after the fire was just keeping my hands busy — it was more installations and 3D forms.”

Pratt student artwork, mostly new pieces made after the fire, lined the walls of the Seagram Gallery from May 9 to 14. (Photo by Amanda Woods)
Pratt student artwork, mostly new pieces made after the fire, lined the walls of the Seagram Gallery from May 9 to 14. (Photo by Amanda Woods)

Castillo’s work shown at the “Flameproof” exhibition included glass vials filled with charred scraps from the February fire sitting on top of a glass shelf — a piece that she called “Este es un Nuevo Dia,” translating to “This is a New Day” in Spanish — as well as a series of small collages assembled on one canvas.

Wissig’s work wasn’t the same after the fire, either. Before the fire, he crafted large paintings. But for the “Flameproof” exhibit, he created small oil paintings, including one entitled “Bicycle” and another called “On a Bus,” along with a small video display of a flushing toilet.

Other students’ work included a set of small intricate paintings of rosary beads and crucifixes, several portraits — some colorful and some black and white — and a fantasy-like painting of two dogs jumping on a unicorn’s back and legs. Also displayed at the exhibition were photos of the Pratt students as they transitioned to working in their new temporary studio space, located at the far end of the gym in the campus’ ARC building.

“They built a new studio three weeks after spring break,” Wissig said. “They had a lot of things redesigned.”

Post-graduation plans have also changed for some students following the fire. Castillo said she originally planned to apply to NYU’s graduate art therapy program, but decided to hold off because she wanted to build up her portfolio again. She also has travel plans in the works.

“I think I’m going to appreciate the year off between grad school and school just to build myself up as an artist a little more and to get experience showing,” Castillo said. “I decided to go to Cuba for four months and open up a studio space and open it up to the public, like to the children in the neighborhood, so I think that’s going to be really rewarding for me after losing so much — trying to give.”

Pratt’s painting and drawing seniors will have two more opportunities to display their work in Manhattan. The first will be held at the Westbeth Gallery on Bethune Street near Washington Street, opening on June 8, and the second will be held at The Painting Center, on West 27th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. The exact dates and times for the second exhibition have yet to be determined.

“I think we’ve all felt like it has been a good experience after [the fire],” Castillo said, “especially because of the shows and just learning how to get back on your feet really quickly after such a tragic thing happened.”

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