The Storm Chaser


Lisa Spellman has always been a pioneer. Whether it was an early understanding of the significance of what became known as “the pictures generation” —young photographers pushing the medium in the 1980s — or the prescient move of her 303 Gallery to the East Village, then SoHo, then Chelsea, or her being one of the first from the city to discover the magic of Ditch Plain, she is usually the first to arrive. Famous among the art cognoscenti of Manhattan and the East End, she’s also a year-round compatriot of Montauk’s surfing tribe, having taken up the sport not for the summer-sunshine scene but in the winter: She was curious what those harsh conditions would feel like.

In 2016, she was among those activists arrested while attempting to block bulldozers working on the United States Army Corps of Engineers project at downtown Montauk, and she continues to speak out on issues of coastal environmentalism. You might have seen her with her husband, Tin Ojeda, and her dog, Tabitha, at their favorite local haunts (which include Hampton Chutney, Vickie’s Veggies, Naturally Good, Stuart’s Seafood Market, and Gosman’s). But she is happiest when she’s outdoors, with her board in the surf or hiking around Amagansett and Montauk.

What brought you out to protest the Army Corps of Engineers project in downtown Montauk?

I started reading about the Army Corps of Engineers about 25 years ago.I became obsessed with our vanishing coastline and about what they were doing in Florida and New Jersey by putting in hard concrete structures. They didn’t know then that to save a house they would lose the beach, and certainly not the extent of it. The hard structures only accelerate their eventual demise, without a natural buffer for absorption and protection. You hear they’re coming with bulldozers and think, “Oh that’s never going to happen.” There was this “wait, what?” moment when I saw the bulldozer. All my worst fears about what I read came true. I went really nuts when I saw them bulldozing primary dune systems that had nothing to do with the project, down by the I.G.A. And then it was shocking to see all of the sandbags and know it was not going to work. Everybody was in a really tough place. Your neighbors are asking for help, and youdon’t want to lose a building in a storm, but everybody knows what hard structures do to the beach. So now [after the sand loss this winter], there’s no beach, and that means those hotels and businesses are in even more jeopardy.

What was it like being arrested?

We were there standing in front of the bulldozers in the pits. They were really deep, and not just bulldozers but these huge earth-mover monstrosities. It was pretty scary looking up at them. About 16 or 17 people were arrested in all. We reached out to volunteers to go down there to peacefully block quickly as we could get people together. It was a desk arrest, and they took us to the Montauk substation. The officers were super-nice, but the judge gave us an incredibly expensive fine. 

What are the changes you’ve seen in Montauk since you arrived at Ditch?

With erosion, you can measure time by how you walk on a certain path all the time and you say, “Okay, that’s my path. That’s the path I always take when I go through the woods or along the cliff.” Then that path is no longer there, but there’s an inner path. You get really used to the inner path, and that becomes your path. Then the inner path is gone. Soon you see they’ve made a new path, and that’s the new outer path. So you take that for five years, and so on.

I think by now I’ve gone through three sets of inner and outer paths. I really miss Scott Pitches’s gallery Out East (next to the old Duryea’s). That view out the window where you could just stare out at the bay was unbelievable. It’s so sad that it’s gone. When I first got here, I only remember seeing maybe 100 people on the beach on a weekend. Maybe I’m over-romanticizing it, but I really don’t remember it being umbrella to umbrella. Maybe on weekends, but on weekdays it would be mellow.

My neighbors have changed a lot. We are in super-tiny zoning, about an eighth of an acre, I think, and the houses were built intentionally to be lightweight, superficial structures. Originally, two of my neighbors were teachers and one was a principal. Now I have really fancy-pants neighbors and masters of the universe, or that’s what they would have called themselves in the ’80s. Now, they’re hip enough and cool enough to know not to label themselves that.

You were cleaning out your basement earlier today, after some flooding. What’s going on?

At my house it’s me, Rheinstein Park, and then the water. I’m living in wetlands. And the water is much closer than it was in the 1990s. I lost some vintage Montauk photographs I bought in an antiques shop that was next to Out East and a photograph I took at the radar station 20 years ago. Everything else is fine. I don’t keep too many important things down there. The hydrostatic pressure is starting to go off the charts. The tides are getting higher, the water table is rising. It’s raining more. The storms are more intense. I don’t know where we’re going to be out here in the next 10 years. Heading for the hills, I think.

And you also had some severe flooding in your gallery (which is on 21st Street and 11th Avenue) during Sandy?

I was out here for Sandy, thinking, “This is where I need to be,” and didn’t know what happened in the city at first. The Whitney Museum’s foundation pit had just been dug a few blocks south, and we heard that their foreman had seen literally a tsunami of water coming up the Hudson River. I think what happened was that wave hit Chelsea Piers and took this hard right turn on 21st Street. The high-tide line in the gallery was my height. The water also left some things behind. There was a plastic Jersey barrier on my desk that we turned into a sculpture. We opened a group show three weeks later and called it “The Perfect Show.” It was a riff on A Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. I’m obsessed with that book. We rebuilt the space in a couple of weeks with German state-of-the-art floodgates that go around the entire perimeter of the building, which you now have to do when you’re that close to the Hudson.

There’s a lot of water in your life.

Water seems to be drawn to me because I’ve been in so many floods, and I’m really drawn to water. I have this story my mom told me about a great-aunt running from a tidal wave in the 1938 Hurricane, either in Long Beach or Rhode Island at Point Judith. And about six months ago I found footage of my grandparents in the 1920s. It’s so amazing because it was my grandfather filming, but it looked like the same things I look at a lot, like a fishing boat and the water going by. There was also something freaky like a trapeze act going on in a boat on the water, something that was supposed to be entertaining in the 1920s. It looked like a Ray-o-Gram, the black-and-white film was super-grainy. My grandfather died when I was six, and he was such an influence on me, but I didn’t realize how much until I saw this film.

What about surfing?

If I’m not on the road for an art fair or museum opening, or there are things going on in the city, I’m here. And I spend big chunks of time in August. I prefer surfing in winter because it is such an aesthetic experience. There’s not many people in the water, it’s a very direct relationship with the water, the horizon line, the seals. I surfed with one today. You really become very connected. When it’s snowing, it’s really beautiful and profoundly silent. I like the silence. It can get really loud in the city...Sometimes the waves are too big for me in the winter. They can get huge! I’m actually able to surf more in the summer, when the water is mellower, even though it’s more crowded and more like work in some ways. Surfing in the summer is the new golf. People conduct business out there. I often see my artists, clients, and other dealers in the lineup.

What about opening a gallery here?

Galleries are really stressful and a lot of hard work. It’s always on my mind. It’s less a profession than an obsession. Here, I can go on amazing hikes and surf with seals and hang out with my dog. I need to interact with the landscape. I have to see the horizon, and that helps calm me down. It’s a pretty hysterical business. For me, if I could objectify a gallery and not have to run it or have anything to do with it, it would be great. You could just think of incredible settings where the artist could do really adventurous projects. It would be amazing.


Jennifer Landes