At age 74, Bill Kuchler figures he’ll run out of time before he runs out of lighthouses scenes to paint.
Since retiring four years ago as an advertising creative director, the West Islip resident spends much of his time in the Blue Barn Studio, his name for the converted 1 1/2-car garage at the end of his driveway.
Kuchler (pronounced kook-ler) has developed a following for his acrylic and watercolor scenes of rustic America through having his works displayed at local art museums, libraries and gift shops.
But most people discover him through his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BlueBarnStudio. They make appointments to visit to purchase originals and prints of his favorite subjects: barns, close-up scenes of rural life and, most recently, lighthouses.
Kuchler is trying to paint all the lighthouses on Long Island. So far he has done Horton Point, Huntington Harbor, Cedar Point, Plum Island, Little Gull, Long Beach Bar (Bug Light), Orient Point, several scenes of Fire Island and Montauk Point, and one scene of Stratford Shoal (technically in Connecticut waters in Long Island Sound). That leaves another 11 to go.
“I try to paint them all in a way that you haven’t seen them before,” such as Fire Island in the snow – the first in the series, completed about a decade ago. Another view of that lighthouse, on a stormy day with lightning bolts in the sky, was a challenge. “I never painted lightning before,” he explained.
One of his lighthouse paintings provided perhaps his biggest claim to fame: Dan’s Paper on the East End contacted him to do a cover illustration of the Montauk Point Lighthouse in 2019.
Asked about his affinity for lighthouses, Kuchler said, “I think it’s the history of them. That these things have been standing there for hundreds of years. Painting lighthouses and their surroundings encompass everything I like about painting. It’s the textures, the history.”
“I don’t think I’ll run out of Long Island lighthouse paintings,” he continued. “I don’t think I’ll live long enough to run out of them. I’ll do the same one in the snow, I will do it in the rain, I’ll try to do it in a way that no one else has done it.”
The Brooklyn native grew up in Richmond Hill in Queens. When he and his wife Dorothy got married 54 years ago, they lived in Whitestone before coming to their house with a sprawling and leafy backyard in West Islip more than a half-century ago.
Being an artist is in Kuchler’s genes.
“Painting has always been part of my life since I was a kid,” he said. “My father painted, but he wasn’t a painter – he worked in a factory. But he was a magnificent painter.” Visitors can see that for themselves on the walls of the studio: a head-and-shoulders portrait and a reclining nude of his mother painted by his father, Kurt.
“There was always a drawing table for painting in our house,” Kuchler remembered. “I thought everyone had one in their house until I went to my friends’ houses and they didn’t. My influence was him and his painting. That made me want a career as a commercial artist in advertising.”
To pursue that career, he attended Thomas Edison High School, a trade school in Queens, to take commercial art courses. “That was the extent of my formal education, but I did take classes at the School of Visual Arts and the Phoenix School of Design, mostly related to graphics and advertising. My first job was in an art studio in New York. We did all creative work for an ad agency. I spent my whole career doing that, commercial art as a graphic designer.”
While Kuchler painted as a hobby regularly for most of his life, he did stop for longer than a decade more than 20 years ago because “life got in the way.” His wife reignited his interest when she signed him up for an art course with local watercolorist Bill Decker and “I realized how much I missed it.”
Now he paints “whenever he has a chance and there are no chores to be done.” He noted that his wife keeps him busy helping out in their lush garden.
“I promote myself as a painter of rural and rustic America,” Kuchler said. “So it can be anything from a lighthouse painting to a barn or one of my favorite paintings of a rusted lock on a barn door. It was the rust and the rough wood textures that made it dramatic. Most of them are done in a realistic style. I consider myself a sentimental painter, so anything I paint has a sentimental feeling to me.”
As to the subjects, “I paint what I like, whether they sell or not,” he continued. A previous series was on covered bridges he saw on a trip to Vermont.
What he doesn’t like to paint are portraits. “I found that very unsatisfying. Landscapes and rustic scenes are what I like.”
His clientele likes them too. His original paintings sell for between $300 and $1,000 but he prices most of his prints at $25 to keep them affordable.
Among his fans are artist Holly Gordon, who has included Kuchler’s paintings in two shows she curated for the Islip Art Museum. “There is something very quiet and sensitive about his nature, and I think it comes through in his artwork,” she said. “He is quite versatile and his work is realistic and has a wonderful sensitivity to it. He is very attuned to being a Long Islander and his environment.”
“I try to paint things I haven’t painted before,” Kuchler said. “When I start a painting, I think to myself that ‘I can’t wait to see how I do this.’” Usually, he starts with a sketch and accumulates as much reference material as he can.
Kuchler is a self-described introvert: “I’m very content to be by myself, in the barn painting,” he said.
He is also sentimental and emotional. He demonstrates that when he talks about one of his favorite paintings, a recent watercolor. “It’s just a picture of a swing in front of a tree. It’s in my backyard and that swing has been there for 50 years,” he said, choking up because of the association with his children and grandchildren playing there. “It’s like a family heirloom. The first year we moved into the house, the first thing we wanted to build was a swing.”
Even on days when he’s busy with chores, Kuchler tries to paint at least a few strokes. “I like food, I like my family, I like to have a drink now and then, and I like to paint, but it’s not all in that order,” he said.
He creates in the cramped, overstuffed garage turned barn. Almost every surface is covered with something: mostly paintings of lighthouses, barn doors, front porches and landscapes. But there’s also newspaper front pages from important events he has collected since the 1950s, Superman comics, baseball mitts and memorabilia, Benny Goodman and 1960s folk music album covers and concert posters from Pete Seeger and Harry Chapin, a milkshake blender and other paraphernalia from Woolworth’s soda fountains because his mother was a waitress at one, and shelves of art books.
The most unusual and prominent feature is a barber chair in a corner by the front door. “I always wanted a barber’s chair” because it just appealed to him, Kuchler explained. “They were having an auction in Babylon and I told my kids about it and a week later they were bringing in the barber’s chair. The kids chipped in and got it for me. I sit in it and listen to music to get inspired.”
In the rafters he has an old suitcase that his wife got him for Christmas and on which he attaches travel stickers, an old wooden sled and other Americana. “It’s hard to explain to our friends that this is the kind of thing that makes me happy,” he said.
At least he doesn’t have to explain his attraction to painting to his wife and children because they are also creative. His wife, who he met while they were both studying at the Caton Rose Institute of Art in Queens, paints and creates stained glass pieces and other craft work. Son Scott is a musician, son Adam is a wood craftsman who builds furniture and son Lucas draws. Daughter Noelle is a writer and does theater while daughter Amber is a singer and dancer who has done theater.
Kuchler and his wife enjoy being busy in their artistic pursuits. “I love him and I love that he’s happy with what he’s doing,” Dorothy said.
Even when he’s not painting, Kuchler said, “I’m thinking about painting all the time. I spend more time thinking about what I’m going to paint than actually doing the painting. And when I finish a painting, I can’t wait to see what I will paint next.”