When Lautaro Cuttica was 15, he fell in love. He was living with his parents in DUMBO, Brooklyn, near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge on the East River, where a lot of driftwood accumulated. His beloved’s birthday was approaching and he decided to use wood he gathered to make her a life-size sculpture of a pony.
Right before he finished, she went to France. He completed the sculpture, but when she returned, “It seemed her heart had changed,” Mr. Cuttica, now 21, said while walking through his backyard studio at 153 Newtown Lane in East Hampton last week. “I was ready to burn it,” he said of the pony, “from so much grief.”
That summer, his parents had rented a home on Newtown Lane and his father, Eugenio, a painter, suggested that his son put the horse on the lawn next to the house. Within a few weeks, a schoolteacher from New Jersey who was the widow of the former owner of Archie Comics, saw Mr. Cuttica’s horse, fell in love and bought it for $3,000.
“I found out I could make art and simultaneously make a living,” Mr. Cuttica said. Since then his heart mended and he has sculpted dozens of life-size horses from pieces of driftwood he has collected in Montauk. He has sold 20 horses over the last four years, some which are now prominently displayed in the region—such as the one in Amagansett Square. He has done one $4,000 commission, a horse reared up on its hind legs, for a Texas woman who saw his work displayed in East Hampton. So far this summer, he has sold more horses than usual, but at a lower price. “People still want to buy them,” he said, “but they just are not willing to pay as much.”
His family has continued to rent the same house on Newtown Lane, where Mr. Cuttica, who just finished his third year studying architecture on a full scholarship at Cooper Union in Manhattan, has made building horses his full-time summer job—seven hours a day, six days a week. He said he relies on proceeds from sculpture sales for money to survive during the school year.
The Cutticas moved to New York City from Buenos Aires, Argentina—where Mr. Cuttica’s father had a large horse—in the late 1990s, and moved to East Hampton four years ago so that Mr. Cuttica’s younger brother, Franco, could attend the Ross School. Franco and his friend Aidan Shimonov are working as Mr. Cuttica’s assistants and will receive a percentage of the revenue from sales while another chunk goes toward rent payments for the house.
Last week, four horses stood in a line in the large yard on Newtown Lane, appearing ready to rear up and gallop into the sunset. A small sign in front said “Driftwood horses for sale.” One of the pieces was enormous, larger than a draft horse, weighing more than 400 pounds, Mr. Cuttica said, and was the largest horse he had ever built. Comparing these horses with the quality of his first pony, Mr. Cuttica said, was like comparing a Ferrari and a Toyota.
Around the house, in the other side yard enclosed by a hedge, six horses stood in various stages of progress, missing heads, legs, hooves or tails.
“As artistic objects, I like the horses in progress,” Mr. Cuttica said. “I like to work on several at one time because it’s a little more efficient in terms of dispensing energy.” Each horse takes approximately two full weeks of work to build, he said.
Beside the half-formed creatures was a perfectly ordered palette of wood that stretched across the grass, with pieces arranged by shade, size, texture and shape. Mr. Cuttica and his parents go to Montauk at five in the morning almost daily to gather wood, alternating among all the beaches.
“We pick up so much the ocean can’t bring it in fast enough,” Mr. Cuttica said.
To start a horse, Mr. Cuttica said, he first “draws,” a structure with pieces of wood from the forest, which is softer than ocean driftwood and so more pliable. He uses screws to hold the structure, which he tries to keep in proportion with nature.
From a technical perspective, he said, getting the proportions correct is the hardest part. Studying architecture, pictures in books and horses grazing in East Hampton has all helped. While it takes him less time to get it right now than it once did, he said that even today he often has to take apart what he’s done to redo it.
Once he has the outline, he takes the salt-logged, smooth ocean wood, which is easy to interlock, he said, and gives the horse a skin—using flatter pieces, such as milled lumber, when he wants to convey the tautness of a horse’s body. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “It has to fit together naturally.” The only wood he cuts is the bark-covered wood from the forest for the inner structure.
As he works, Mr. Cuttica often stands 10 or 15 feet from the horse and directs his brother and Aidan to attach and screw the pieces so he can keep perspective. “A millimeter off can just make the face,” he said. “You have to have someone move it inch by inch while I’m standing back there and can see. It requires a lot of mental concentration to get everything right. It’s very three dimensional, so you want to look from every angle.” Often, one assistant will hold a piece while the other screws, Mr. Cuttica said, so the horses can be built as fast as he thinks.