Creating Art from Sandy’s Wreckage

Sculptor Laura Petrovich-Cheney's latest exhibition, "By the Block," repurposes fragments of wood salvaged from the ruins of Hurricane Sandy.

Laura Petrovich-Cheney in the Asbury Park Studio where she creates quilt-like works from the remnants of Hurricane Sandy.
Laura Petrovich-Cheney in the Asbury Park Studio where she creates quilt-like works from the remnants of Hurricane Sandy.
Photo by Dina Kantor

Nothing lasts forever. Hundreds of thousands of families learned that the hard way on October 29, 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast and shattered boardwalks, homes and hearts.

Change is a recurring theme throughout Asbury Park sculptor Laura Petrovich-Cheney’s portfolio, epitomized in her latest exhibition, “By the Block,” opening July 16 at the James Howe Gallery at Kean University in Union. The exhibit showcases bright, three-dimensional, quilt-like works crafted from bits of wood salvaged from the ruins of Sandy’s landfall.

“By the Block” combines Petrovich-Cheney’s love of found wood—her preferred sculpting medium—with her passion for quilting, a lifelong hobby. Haddonfield, her hometown, has a strong quilting tradition dating back to its days as a stop on the Underground Railroad. “Patchwork quilts are a very feminine art,” says Petrovich-Cheney, who, “as a woman in a woodshop,” strives to evoke femininity in her work. She compares repurposing Sandy’s discarded wood to the tradition of stitching secret messages (known as quilt codes): each of her quilts tells its own story of the Shore and survival.

“My work mirrors the human experience, so full of transformation, second chances, reinvention and resilience,” says Petrovich-Cheney, whose parents live on Pelican Island, a small Toms River community on Barnegat Bay. They lost more than half of their home to the storm. After the surge receded, the National Guard allowed the artist on the island along with the other residents. Driving around in a pickup truck, Petrovich-Cheney foraged the devastation for colorful remains of once-picturesque beach homes, from shutters to kitchen cabinets.

“The quantity of waste was unbelievable,” Petrovich-Cheney says. When she explained her vision, the owners of the scraps were glad to see them in her hands. “They were very open to it continuing on as something else, instead of just sitting in a garbage heap.”

Petrovich-Cheney isn’t the only artist to see beauty in Sandy’s debris. In May 2013, New Jersey Monthly reported on Ocean Grove artist Roddy Wildeman, a former contractor, who crafts wood starbursts and mosaics from Sandy’s detritus. The two artists came together last September at Gallery 14 in Morristown for an exhibition titled “Sandy Destruction/Constructions.”

In conjunction with the Petrovich-Cheney exhibit, Premiere Stages, the resident equity theater company at Kean University, is presenting By the Water, a Sandy-inspired play by Sharyn Rothstein. “Hurricane Sandy is the catalytic agent of the play, but the play isn’t about the hurricane,” says director Adam Immerwahr. “It’s a universal story about family, the cost of secrets, and what you find when your life is uprooted.” The play runs July 16 through August 2; attendees are encouraged to arrive early to view Petrovich-Cheney’s work. The gallery and Zella Fry Theatre are both located inside Vaughn Eames Hall.

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