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Building on Faith in Sag Harbor

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 15:57
April Gornik and Eric Fischl's legacy lies in an old church
Last week at the old Methodist Church in Sag Harbor, Eric Fischl held up a prototype for his painting of Herman Melville.

Last June, as the summer crowds returned to Sag Harbor, the buzz was about the sale of the old Methodist Church building on Madison Street and a short-lived mystery surrounding who had purchased it. The buyers turned out to be the artist couple Eric Fischl and April Gornik, who announced plans for a public and humanistic purpose for the building and its distinct nature — to make it an arts center.

The site has had a history of false starts since the United Methodist Church sold it in 2008. These included two separate plans for elaborate private residences and another for a commercial space to showcase design. Now, the building might be described (in real estate parlance) as on its way to achieving its “highest and best use,” after its initial one. 

With the exterior almost near completion and its original bell reinstalled, the building looks refreshed and slightly modernized this year. Soaring clear-paned windows have taken the place of stained glass, and the clapboard is clean and bright white. New landscaping will develop over the next several months. 

Inside, there is still much to be done, with a completion date set for March, according to the artists and the woman who is helping them achieve their vision, Christy MacLear.

Ms. MacLear came on board last summer. After a career of helping artists cement their legacies, including a turn as the chief executive officer of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, she is uniquely positioned to help Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik secure their own. She is advising them on their own foundation, which will help sustain the building and whatever activities ultimately find their home there.

“We’re not the sort of people who are thinking about taking it with us,” Ms. Gornik pointed out.

The couple (who were already deeply committed to the rebuilding and expansion of the Sag Harbor Cinema when they bought this site) have scores of ideas for the place, but are committing to only a few at this point. According to Ms. Gornik, who spoke while she, Mr. Fischl, and Ms. MacLear led an informal tour of the interior, being “flexible is key, not with uncertainty, but deliberatively, building it in” to accommodate whatever needs might develop. “When we start, we will not have fixed-in-stone programming. We will have aspirations, but not specific goals.” 

What is certain is that the space, which is to be called The Church, will host resident artists who will live and work there for five-week intervals. There will be enough bedrooms to accommodate four at a time. Creators in all disciplines will be welcomed, with the hope of bringing in people from different fields to work together on a single project, according to Mr. Fischl.

But it is not only that, Ms. Gornik emphasized. “We’re not making a church that is an arts residency; we’re making a church that has artists in residence,” she said. 

They are planning much more for the space, and are looking into the feasibility of putting in a sound studio on the ground floor, something they have been hearing is greatly lacking in the community. Some of the programs under discussion and development are a “Can Opener” series of workshops to help people unleash their creativity, to get past writer’s block, stage fright, or whatever else is holding them back. Another idea is the “Sunday Sermon,” in which “we will show people how to look at paintings, what to look for,” Mr. Fischl said.

“We would bring in a painting, maybe even a big painting, and invite people to come and parse it, react to it, wonder about it,” Ms. Gornik added. The idea is to offer a contemplative experience that is art-related, something akin to the feeling of going to church.

In fact, their plans tend to honor the ecumenical functions of houses of worship as community gathering places or devoted to a higher plane of thinking, but in a less spiritual and more humanistic vein. The windows on the upper floors have central square panes where panels of Mylar will be painted with portraits of Sag Harbor’s cultural elite through the ages. Mr. Fischl is painting the first 20. “They will be our saints,” he said.

At first, the thought of coming up with 20 significant figures was daunting, but they now have 150. “They are people who lived here, but had national and international impact,” he said. 

The first 20 will include Herman Melville, whose portrait is already a prototype on plexiglass that Mr. Stritch, Gordon Matta-Clark, Lanford Wilson, Betty Friedan, E.L. Doctorow, Caroline Blackwood, John Steinbeck, and Langston Hughes. 

“I like the idea that I do the first 20 . . . then we get other artists to do the next 20. We’ll have different interpretations.”

In its final form, the building will have three levels. The ground level will have workspace and rooms for visiting artists. The second or main floor will hold exhibitions and programs. The top floor will be an office and meeting space. 

“The Church will be a public facility, but the residences will be private, and the workspace will be for the residents in the first year,” Ms. MacLear said. “Community workspace may come 

later.”

Although Ms. Gornik and Mr. Fischl have made the investment in the building as their legacy, they are forming a nonprofit organization called Reddere to operate it. “It means to dare, to make,” according to Mr. Fischl. This will allow them to buttress their own investment by raising money as needed for programs and maintenance, while allowing for community investment as well.

“We’re not trying to be everything to everybody and the only thing to everybody,” Mr. Fischl said. “This town has all this other stuff that we want to be a part of.” The goal is to fill in the gaps in what organizations like the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center (which could begin operation as early as this fall), Bay Street Theater, or the library offer and work in collaboration with them. “And we want to do it in a compelling way that creates a great energy everywhere.”

“It’s a little bit of a leap of faith,” Ms. Gornik said. “Can I say that in a church?”


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