Fire giveth and fire taketh away

John Christensen
Faith and Dexter Benedict with two of their works that survived the Nov. 1 fire that completely destroyed their Baker Road studios.

In perhaps the most ironic tragedy in recent local history, an artist couple whose works depend on fire, lost their studios, the tools of their craft, much of their work and many other possessions to the very same volatile element.

Recently retired art educators for Keuka College and Penn Yan Central Schools, Dexter and Faith Benedict were awakened at 5 a.m Nov. 1 by the barking of their dog, Leo. Faith rose from bed and looked out the window to see their studio, barely 25 yards from their house, awash in flames stretching 50 feet high. The building housed both their studios — Fire Works Foundry & Fire Works Pottery, for Dexter’s metal sculptures and Faith’s ceramics, for over 40 years on Baker Road in Milo. It also contained a lifetime of collected works from other artists and treasured examples of their students’ work.

Ten fire companies responded to the 911 call. Penn Yan FD received mutual aid at the scene from Bellona, Benton, Branchport-Keuka Park, Dundee, Himrod, Tyrone, and Wayne. West Lake Road FD set up to fill tankers at the nearest hydrant in Horizon Business Park in Penn Yan, 5 1/2 miles away. Potter FD provided standby at Penn Yan’s firehouse, and Watkins Glen FD did the same for Dundee.

Despite the response, the studio was a total loss, with damage to other outbuildings. Dexter had several high profile commissions nearing completion that were totally destroyed. One, a life-sized mule destined for Fairport, and second, two busts of famed abolitionist and slave rescuer Harriet Tubman, and William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State responsible for the purchase of Alaska, destined for the Schenectady City Library. The over $30,000 in advances for materials is dwarfed by the loss of Dexter’s time in sculpting those works. Beyond newly purchased materials for her work, Faith lost her potter’s wheel and most significantly, a new electric kiln. Also destroyed were Dexter’s workhorse Jeep, a recently restored VW Beetle hotrod, a sailboat, plus multiple pieces of outdoor equipment, as well as many of Faith’s paintings and family possessions including holiday decorations and mementos kept in a storage building. Dexter was able to move their vintage Triumph Spitfire sports car out of a nearby building and away from the flames.

With aluminum sculptures reduced to mere puddles of molten metal and bronze sculptures deformed, the Benedicts say temperatures in the fire must have exceeded 1,900 degrees. The Penn Yan FD was recalled to the scene later in the day, when the fire rekindled in the ruins. While undetermined, the Yates County Fire Investigators believe it may have originated from a propane leak in one of the building’s heaters, recently restarted for the colder weather.

Dexter and Faith say how grateful they are to the firefighters who risk their safety for others. But they are also aware how lucky they were that recent rains had dampened the forest surrounding their home, and that a rare south wind kept the flames from spreading to their nearby house. Dexter says forge and the older gas ceramics kiln may be salvageable.

Good luck also lent itself to saving some of the work feared lost. When Faith’s ruined kiln was opened, the dozen or so large pieces she had recently fired were found completely untouched, insulated this time by the flames outside the kiln. And one of Dexter’s commissions that was due the Monday after the fire was also found unharmed. With the use of fellow metal artist Don Sottile’s studio on Himrod Road, Dexter was able to finish the bronze piece for the University of Rochester’s “Cancer Researcher of the Year Award” just in time.

While somewhat chagrined by the fate of having lost over four decades of work and so many future works destroyed or delayed by the fire, Faith and Dexter are quick to point to the far more devasting losses suffered by others in the California wildfires. They are also thankful for the quickly arrived help of their three daughters, Heather, Cindi, and Susan, and Dexter’s brother Dan who has come in from Hawaii.

Once the insurance investigators complete the claim, the Benedict’s vow they will rebuild, and the Fire Works Studios’ open house gallery that had been planned for early December will take place as a thank you for those who have shown support.