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The Art of Community: Sag Harbor’s The Church brings art to all

Photography by David Benthal

The signs are subtle. As you walk south down Sag Harbor’s Main Street to where the road forks left and becomes Madison Street, you see it: a stately white sanctuary, broad and tall. It’s not unlike many a house of worship in many a small northeastern coastal village. As you draw closer, though, you start to notice that this one looks a little different. 

First, instead of a shrine to the Virgin Mary or other saint central to Christianity there’s a swirling white sculpture to the right of the front entrance entitled “Twister Grande” by artist Alice Aycock. It’s an eye-catching spin of powder-coated aluminum and stainless steel that seems to defy gravity. And then there are the long, tall, 48-pane windows, each with an original painting of an artist, connected in some way to Sag Harbor, all gazing down upon you as you approach this house of artistic worship. This is April Gornik and Eric Fischl’s vision and gift to Sag Harbor, come to life. This is The Church.

It takes a (whaling) village

Gornik and Fischl have been members of the Sag Harbor community since 1985. Originally weekenders after decades of digging into the arts scene in New York City, they made the East End their permanent place of residence in 2004. As the years progressed, and the village became more popular among tourists and bold-faced names alike, and more old businesses disappeared from Main Street, they felt an ever-strengthening pull to maintain the village’s charm.

Sag Harbor could easily be called the unofficial Hamptons arts district. On Main Street, there’s the iconic Sag Harbor Cinema, which reopened as a nonprofit cinema arts center after a fire ravaged it several years ago. Approaching Long Wharf you’ll find the Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts, a professional theater that produces a season of high-end plays and musicals, as well as year-round performances of live music and other programming. There are at least eight art galleries open along Main Street and the surrounding side streets at various times of the year. And then there’s the stunning and staggeringly beautiful arts center that married artists Gornik and Fischl spearheaded back in 2018.

A lifelong painter and social justice advocate, Gornik has had a hand in many of Sag Harbor’s arts organizations. As a former board member of Save Sag Harbor and presently a board member of the Sag Harbor Partnership, volunteer groups that work to preserve the town’s character and sustainability, Gornik is a mainstay in the community. But The Church perhaps represents the apex of her and Fischl’s work as community activists — an expansive arts center with challenging and enriching exhibitions and residencies, as well as a tribute to the many storied artists and other creative individuals who have been part of Sag Harbor’s past and present. 

“Sag Harbor has a lingering rough-around-the-edges quality,” says Gornik. “It’s harder and harder to see it. We’re trying to be part of something that doesn’t wreck what augments Sag Harbor.” This manifests in the community-focused content The Church provides, like having Lisa Field, whose family has owned the beloved Sag Harbor Variety Store for over 50 years, come and give a featured talk about being part of the fiber of the village.

Another vital aspect of programming at The Church is welcoming guest artists to engage with the community, like visiting mixed-media artist Sheila Pepe, with her exhibit “Threading the Needle,” curated by chief curator Sara Cochran and Fischl. 

“It was about human connection and fragility,” says Gornik. “People left that talk in tears.” It had a deep impact, both on those who came to listen to her speak and on Gornik herself. “I learn from the shows. As a traditional painter, after that I started to look at my own canvases differently.” A portion of the fiber-art installation remained on loan from Pepe for many months afterward, hanging from the ceiling like a surreal, colorful fishing net, waiting to catch the thoughts and ideas of visitors.

An important part of the programming at The Church is welcoming guest artists from both nearby and far. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Other community-minded presentations bring in local artisans like talented printmaker Sam Havens, who led several successful printmaking workshops.

“This place is really amazing,” says Havens. “Everybody has such a great time at the workshops. The Church is such a great thing to be a part of out here.”

Celebrating the good 

Deconsecrated in 2004, The Church was built in 1835 as a Methodist house of worship and was purchased by Gornik and Fischl in 2018. Only one section of post-deconsecration stained glass remains today, a stunning blue and purple piece that hangs above the front entrance. The stripped-down building was renovated by Skolnik Architecture+Design Partnership, and nearly every inch was renewed, although the building’s sturdy old notched beams remain as a link to the past.

The portraits in the windows — a sort of stations of the cross for the creative — were painted by Fischl. They include novelist Nelson Algren, choreographer George Balanchine, writer and civil rights activist Olivia Ward Bush-Banks, feminist icon Betty Friedan, activist and writer Langston Hughes, among many others. In another nod to the community, Fischl and Gornik etched the names of every worker involved in putting the building back together on a door on the ground floor’s workspace, honoring their time and work.

A nonprofit, The Church is “about creativity of all kinds,” says Gornik. “We also wanted The Church to be kind of an extension of what we thought was cool about Sag Harbor, which is that it’s resilient and creative.”

With that mission, she and Fischl didn’t face community resistance with the project, largely thanks to her work helping to bring back the Sag Harbor Cinema after the 2016 fire, restoring it as a nonprofit movie theater with multiple screens, a rooftop lounge and a programming lineup that includes both art films and more mainstream movies.

“There was some trust there,” Gornik says. “When we hit the ground with this place, we said we wanted it to be fun and welcome everybody, which we did with the cinema, too.”

(Photo credit: David Benthal)

But while the arts can sometimes be inaccessible to mainstream audiences, for financial reasons or even shades of high-art intimidation or opaqueness, Gornik wants The Church to be for everyone. There’s a library packed with books on art, artists and other creatives that anyone can pull from the shelves, sit and read. Artists are invited to explain their work. There is a residency program, weekly workshops, courses, performances, talks and educational opportunities that speak volumes about the anchoring community mission to which Gornik, Fischl and their team are dedicated. Admission is free to explore the art on display. The only thing that requires payment are the special events used to raise funds for the nonprofit. 

Exhibits like “Hand Made” in November and December 2022 combined a dovetailing duo of installations. One was the private guitar collection of musician and Sag Harbor resident G.E. Smith, which spans the early 19th century through today, and included one glorious piece made from a beam that came from The Church. The other exhibit was a collection of 31 bronze cast sculptures of artists’ hands, including those of sculptor Michele Oka Doner and metal artist Jean-Pierre Wiart, on loan from Vanessa Hob and Thomas Donahue’s American Artists’ Hand Archive. In February of that same year came “Return to a Place by the Sea,” a reprising of an exhibit from the 1990s that focused on the work of four powerful Black American artists — Nanette Carter, Gregory Coates, Alvin Loving and Frank Wimberley — who were connected to Sag Harbor’s Eastville neighborhood.

“This is what I want The Church to be,” says Gornik. “A place that celebrates the good.”