Sag Savior

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Tooling around Sag Harbor in her sleek dark-green Tesla, a strawberry blonde expertly points out local landmarks, from the Old Whalers’ Church to the apartment where Thomas Harris worked on Red Dragon to Eastville, a 19th-century enclave originally settled by African Americans, Native Americans and Europeans that is still home to a multicultural mix. She’s neither a historian nor a tour guide, but the landscape artist April Gornik.  

Gornik and her husband, painter Eric Fischl, bought a small farmhouse in Sag Harbor in 1985 before building the house in 1999 that became their full-time home in 2004. She has since become the high-profile champion of a plethora of local causes, from a major campaign to restore the Sag Harbor Cinema, which was destroyed by fire in December 2016, to seeking cultural designation for SANS, the black resort community made up of three historic subdivisions (Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah) adjacent to Eastville. These days, Gornik spends nearly as much time organizing and fundraising as painting. An artist with a mission, she could be called Sag Harbor’s savior.  

Gornik, a longtime activist, has promoted causes from animal rights to environmental protection. But in the last few years, her love affair with Sag Harbor has inspired her most ardent advocacy. The village, with its picturesque main street, was settled in 1730, and unlike much of the Hamptons, it has maintained its quaint ambience. As Gornik puts it in her no-nonsense way, “I think Sag Harbor has changed the least in terms of preservation of the environment, and in terms of its charm and character. Most people still think of it as the un-Hamptons or the less-Hamptons. And it has become a motivation of mine to keep it that way.” 

Gornik’s altruism reaches beyond Sag Harbor. She supports the East End Hospice, the South Fork Natural History Museum, Guild Hall (where Eric is on the board) and the Parrish Art Museum. In 2013, she collaborated with a member of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk to establish the Shark’s Eye Tournament as a contest that captures, tags and releases sharks, rather than killing them. But she’s been focused on her hometown since 2007, when she helped form the preservation group Save Sag Harbor. In 2012, she cofounded the Sag Harbor Partnership, where she serves as vice president. 

Gornik was instrumental in fundraising for Sag Harbor’s John Steinbeck Waterfront Park in 2016, garnering $131,000 to help enable the village to buy the property. She also raised the money to mount a signature wrought-iron fence around the old cemetery belonging to Eastville’s historic St. David A.M.E. Zion Church, thought to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. 

Her primary push right now is rebuilding the Sag Harbor Cinema. Gornik’s initial interest in preserving the cinema was sparked almost a decade before the fire that destroyed the village’s favorite landmark, when its owner, Gerald Mallow, put the movie house up for sale. Gornik and several others now prominent in the Partnership formed a group to try to buy it, despite its “ridiculously high” $12 million price tag. “We were concerned that we would lose the cinema, and we all started thinking about how it could be preserved and if it could be turned into a not-for-profit venture,” she says. “But we knew we could never raise that amount of money.” The effort stalled, and the cinema remained unsold. 

Then, in July 2016, Mallow and his wife, Françoise, sat at Gornik’s kitchen table and told her they wanted to sell the cinema to a not-for-profit so that it could be preserved. “We think that you are the person who is going to make that happen,” he informed her. “So it was like it really did fall in my lap,” recalls Gornik. She wasted no time “getting the band back together. We were hoping we could get it for $7 or $8 million, and even that seemed a lot for this really old, old, cinema that had never been fixed up. We were trying to get the contracts done by the end of the year—December 28 actually was our date.”

But the fire twelve days before that changed everything. “We were so upset, and so many people were affected and displaced. And the night of the fire, our beloved Sag Harbor sign was leaning drastically into the street,” Gornik says. “And the mayor and the fire inspector determined that the façade had to come down. I was having dinner at the American Hotel in a fit of pathetic despair and sentimentalism, and I went outside just as the bulldozer was headed toward the cinema façade, and I watched it come down and it was inordinately painful.”

Determined to rebuild the cinema from the rubble—only the auditorium and iconic sign could be salvaged—the Sag Harbor Partnership sprang into action. With Gornik spearheading the effort, the Partnership, which luckily had an historic buildings fund, raised $9 million dollars in just nine months (Fischl donated the first $1 million), and a contract was signed in April 2017. The deal closed in January. “Now,” says Gornik, “we are in phase two, the building phase. We need to get [another] $5 to $6 million. If we can raise $3 million by July 1, we will be ‘shovel ready.’ ” 

She points to a cutaway plan on the Sag Harbor Cinema website, which she designed. “It’s not just a cute little multiplex, but a real cinematheque,” Gornik says. The goal is to create a state of the art film center that celebrates cinema history. The original façade will be faithfully re-created. But inside, instead of just one theater, the new Sag Harbor Cinema will have three—a main theater with up to 230 seats for first-run movies, a 100-seat repertory theater for retrospectives, and a 44-seat private screening room that can double as a classroom, as well as a café and concession. Gornik also envisions a cutting-edge virtual reality room that could occupy part of a 900-square foot space on the third floor. The projected completion date is 2020. 

“It’s going to be a very sophisticated experience. We will be able to go from 16mm to 35mm film— to show movies in the way they were intended to be shown,” Gornik explains. By the time she has completed her mission, Gornik and her team will not only have restored a hallowed Hamptons landmark, they will have vastly improved it.

“It’s really simple, this never would have happened without April,” declares Nick Gazzolo, president of the Sag Harbor Partnership. “Her leadership, her fundraising, her vision and her tenacity are something to behold. Let’s be clear, overwhelmingly April raised most of the money, period. She knows everyone and she is just so incredibly passionate about Sag Harbor. I am running as fast as I can, and I feel like a statue next to April.”

Gornik has emphatically made her mark as a local heroine, but to non- Sag Harborites, she is still best-known as perhaps America’s premier landscape artist. Her transcendent canvases are in a genre all their own. Although her studio (which sits side by side with Eric’s, each in its own small outbuilding) looks out on a view of windswept trees and water, the templates of her work are in her head, not outside her window. Using composites of photographs and sketches that she manipulates with Photoshop as reference material, Gornik first draws and then paints freehand on canvas, creating landscapes that are strictly imaginary—and strikingly devoid of people. Unlike most contemporary artists, she uses neither a projected image nor any assistants. Each work is solely her own. Painted on a grand scale, her canvases—the roiling surf on an empty shore during an indigo twilight, the blazing red desert stretching into distant wavelike dunes and mountains—suggest the majesty and sublimity of the Hudson River painter Frederic Edwin Church. 

Because Gornik’s work comes out of her subconscious rather than directly from nature itself, with no people to pollute the landscape, it retains an air of mystery. She has a predilection for dramatic plays of light—particularly pre- or post-storm. Currently between shows, her studio contains about a half a dozen pieces: two stunning, huge, contrasting paintings: one of a calm, black sea extending to the horizon, with a glint of golden sunset; the other a grey ocean under a lowering sky, a beautifully rendered churning wave lapping the shore. There are also several rich, deep large charcoal drawings of sea merged with sky: moody, swirling portraits of shadow and motion.   

“She is a marvelous painter,” says critic Donald Kuspit. “I think she is kind of a conceptual landscapist—she paints the idea of landscape rather than the actual landscape itself. She has a marvelous ambivalance toward nature, I think she goes to landscape as a subject not because of environmental concern, but as some sort of projection of her inner nature and her attitude toward life.” As Fischl aptly puts it, “She makes work that is about place, and not simply a scenic environment. It’s about weather. It’s about the force of nature. It’s about psychological space. It’s landscape as metaphor, which is why it is so fresh and vibrant.” 

As Gornik herself says, “Behind my work there is kind of an empathetic impulse. To connect, and to connect to big emotional concerns that are just so fundamental to me, and to the way I experience life. And landscape is my language for that. And then the community work is also an extension of an empathetic impulse, and some of it is directly related to landscape, so in that way they are connected.”  

Gornik’s Sag Harbor projects range from the highly ambitious—the future cinematheque—to the modest and personal—the Eastville cemetery fence. But both come from the same heartfelt place. “I ran into Sally Susman at a party, and she knew I was active in a whole lot of things here, and she said, ‘What would you most like to see happen in Sag Harbor?’ and I said, ‘You know, I would really like to get a proper fence around that cemetery. It really bothers me almost more than anything.’ She asked me how much I thought it would cost, and I priced it at about $24,000. There was a little bit in the church’s kitty already, and Sally said, ‘I will write you a check tomorrow.’ We have a great community here. She and her partner Robin Canter donated $16,000 to get this done. And my contractor put it up for practically nothing. It was amazing. It was like a community labor of love. I walk by there all the time, because it just gives me such joy that this was done. I want to be part of the hero team, and I want to make things happen.”


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