Curators at Auto Body have long prided themselves engaging and re-contextualizing “unconventional and overlooked spaces” through art exhibitions. The group’s origins lie in renovating an abandoned auto body shop in Bellport Village in 2014.
Losing the space due to escalating rent last summer gave the group pause. But they are determined to continue showing art and, in their Auto Body spirit, are still scoping out unusual places to do so.
The most recent of those spaces is the Fire Island Wilderness Visitors Center, located at the southern terminus of William Floyd Parkway. The octagon-shaped building is now home to six stunning photographs by Bellport native Kyle Kusa, in an exhibit titled “Barrier Island Birds.”
Each photograph focuses on one bird found along the south shore, positioned on a window that correlates to the kind of habitat in which you’d be most likely to view the birds naturally. Piping plovers, for example, are shore birds, so Kusa installed the image on the south-facing window. The snowy egret is a wading bird, hence its position on the northwest window facing the marshy side of the barrier island, where wading birds, including heron, fish in the shallows.
Kusa’s exhibit also features a tree swallow, black skimmer, osprey and peregrine falcon enjoying its latest hunt. “I shot that photo near the Ponquogue Bridge,” Kusa explained, adding that he enjoys birding all over Long Island.
The 25-year-old said he has always been innately fascinated with the wildlife surrounding him. Taking photos, it appears, came as a natural result. “I’ve always been into birding and being outside and exploring,” Kusa said. “Then I made the commitment to buy a very expensive telephoto lens,” he said, smiling as he shot a gull through the glass of the visitor’s center.
“The whole process of going birdwatching is very cathartic. You’re outside exploring; you could be kayaking or hiking, on the beach, anywhere. Even driving,” he said. Wanting to learn more about the birds, Kusa became interested in researching each species’ taxonomic rank, appearance and common songs and calls. “Skimmers are interesting because they haven’t nested on Fire Island in a while. But permanent colonies are coming back, by the breach,” he said. Though tree swallows are a common sight, Kusa noted that their populations were down until an effort to bring back eastern bluebirds was started. “They nest in the same boxes, so it was a byproduct of that.”
Osprey, however, are Kusa’s favorite bird. “They’re ubiquitous,” Kusa said, since they are found on six out of seven continents. “And they were almost eradicated from the northeast in the 1970s.” Kusa is thankful for naturalists that came before him, including Dennis Puleston, who moved to Brookhaven hamlet from England after World War II. According to the Post Morrow Foundation, ospreys were not a common sight in England where Puleston grew up. After seeing their high nests along the Carmans River, he fell in love, only to find that their populations were dwindling. From there, Puleston played an instrumental role in suing the U.S. Government that eventually resulted in the ban on DDT pesticide.
The hobby has now become a career for Kusa, who worked for the county as a shorebird research technician to protect plovers before moving to the environmental division. “We’re the guys who do trail trimming. It’s interesting work,” Kusa said. In two weeks, he will begin a three-month program working with Americorps in Santa Cruz.
Auto Body co-founder Quinn Sherman knew the space would be perfect for Kusa’s photos from the get-go. “It’s an educational space, a nature conservatory. We try to marry the space with an appropriate artist,” Sherman explained. The 4-by-3-foot prints breathe new life into the space, which Sherman has a unique history with. His uncle, Hobby Miller, constructed the building decades ago, one of two octagonal structures bridged by a pool, a private home in Bayberry Dunes.
The photos are printed on a perforated vinyl that makes them pop against the window and takes advantage of a 360-degree view of Smith Point to the east and the National Seashore sprawling out to the west. The translucent view of the beach and horizon line is present behind the birds, and Kusa feels lucky to be showing his work in a National Parks Service space.
“It’s a way to kick-start exploration,” Sherman said, noting that the exhibit may get new people to the visitor’s center, including locals who have never stepped foot inside. The second floor is home to educational programs and a please-touch tank. “It’s really an engaging space,” Sherman added.
Over 60 people attended the gallery opening earlier this month, and it has been received well by visitors. “It’s really neat how [Kyle] has reimagined the space,” said Elizabeth Rogers, spokesperson for the NPS. “His work really fits in with our effort to reach new audiences through art.”
Kathy Krause, chief of interpretation and education for the Fire Island National Seashore, said that the translucence of the images was an important criterion, so as to not disturb the commanding view of the shore. “We get a lot of repeat visitors to that site and this gives them something different to see and enjoy. It looks really awesome up there,” Krause said.
Both Kusa and Sherman believe in the importance of preserving national park spaces. “It’ll be here forever, it will never be developed. That’s important,” Kusa said, gazing out of the window. He prefers looking west from the second floor of the octagon. “It’s open seashore, as far as the eye can see.”
Next time you’re enjoying a day at Smith Point County Beach, head over to the Fire Island Wilderness Visitor Center and check out the one-of-a-kind shots. “Barrier Island Birds” runs through Labor Day and can be viewed from Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.