By Kathryn G. Menu
Modern and thoughtful, but warm. Refined, creative and intelligent, but without a drop of pretention. Dedicated to the natural world, and intent on communicating that relationship. Inclusive, yet celebratory of private space.
These phrases could be used to describe April Gornik, the world-renowned landscape painter and, in small town Sag Harbor, a celebrated community organizer. The words could also describe the North Haven home she and her husband, artist Eric Fischl, designed with architect Lee H. Skolnick in the late 1990s. Overlooking Fresh Pond, and complete with twin square studio spaces, the home is open to elements — clad in glass, mahogany and steel beams, but also protective, built on a hill with living spaces that wrap around an interior courtyard where Gornik’s treasured Lion’s Head Japanese maple is planted among the numerous fauna she treasures. That includes her vegetable garden — bursting with Sun Gold tomatoes on an early August afternoon — which is located safely away from the village’s infamous deer herd.
“David Falkowski has the best starter tomatoes,” she said, plucking the warm tangerine-colored fruit into her pale hands. “I found them at the farmers’ market — the stems were so fat, it was the healthiest seedling I have ever seen, so I bought a bunch of them and they are producing quite nicely.”
Fischl and Gornik worked closely with Skolnik, who had previously helped them design a studio addition at their first Sag Harbor home on Harrison Street. Painter Susan Rothenberg introduced the couple to Skolnik.
“She said, ‘He will let you draw on his plans with your ideas,’” said Gornik. “We were like, ‘that sounds perfect’. Then Eric found this property, and we decided to build our dream house.”
Gornik, admittedly, wasn’t immediately taken with the wooded lot, but was swayed by Fischl’s vision for the property and what it could become.
“He was just really sure about it, and change is good,” she said.
With Skolnik on board as the architect, the group began working together on the design. Connected to the exterior world through open air patios, terraces and large glass panes throughout, the home itself is a series of living spaces, connected by concrete flooring and steps (with radiant heat), beginning at its highest elevation at the rear of the residence where a bedroom and media room are completed by adjoining patio spaces. From there, the home flows downward, first into an entry way from the courtyard that boasts a water feature and an untouched view of marshland where egrets and herons can be found. Down further it stretches into a living room space decorated with art, books, and Gornik’s guitar and sheet music (she started out learning Bossa nova, but has moved on to Bach). A floating library breaks up the large space encompassing the entryway from the courtyard and the living room, with black iron bookshelves from an old library in Connecticut, sourced from the former Urban Archeology store in Bridgehampton. A French, 1940s school desk completes that room.
“To me, that is how a place feels real — to have a lot of books everywhere,” said Gornik. “Art books and books on science, I feel like you need more substance than an iPad for books like that. For a really good experience, some books just need to be on paper. There is something about opening a book on your lap — the connection between your eyes and your body, and the smell of paper …”
Continuing in a semi circle around the courtyard, walking the house, you drop further still into a dining room and kitchen that truly feels like the center of the home. Stairs lead up into an outdoor portico at the front of the house, where the artists’ twin studios are located.
“He envisioned everything being protected in the courtyard by almost invisible walls,” said Gornik.
Gornik said the design does not fit into one specific style, but draws from Japanese and Mediterranean architecture, arts and crafts, modern concepts, with water features throughout, including one in the portico inspired by Pompeii and the Roman compluvium and impluvium, which collect and store water. Water pours down through a square between the two studios — in winter, snow filters through. The home has also been retrofitted with geothermal and solar technology — while not completely off the grid, environmental sustainability is a passion for Gornik and something she strives for in her home.
“We wanted the house and the studios to be a mixture of inside and outside — it is why we used raw wood, concrete, none of the materials are polished into a whole new, shiny substance. We wanted to keep the authenticity of the materials,” said Gornik. “We wanted this conversation to be going on between the inside and the outside, and wanted the whole house to just feel like that. It wasn’t about me, or my work, as much as it was really about Eric’s and my sensibility. Luckily, we have very much the same sensibility.”
Amid the rich colors that line the walls of her studio on various canvases featuring her most recent work, Gornik’s studio is truly a workplace — a paint table splashed with blues, whites and yellows, boxes scattered about where 13 year-old Hooper and 10 year-old Bebop, Bengal cats wise beyond their years, curl up while batting about loose contents when not climbing their cat tree, or yowling for Gornik’s attention.
“Somehow, they have both known from the get-go that they cannot jump on the painting table,” she said. “I think cats know a lot more about what they should and shouldn’t do, what you are thinking and what you expect from them than people realize. But they are still willful — they think they know better than we do.”
Fischl and Gornik have equal square spaces in their studios, but divide them differently.
“I love working in a square space for some reason, and find my studio really comfortable and open,” said Gornik. “My ‘office’ area is completely separate and I like that too, although I spend a whole lot more time in my actual studio working. And luckily my OCD kicks in when I’m at work so the lovely view isn’t too distracting.”
Gornik spends several hours daily in her studio — her work, revelry of space and light in the natural world.
“I’ve worked from dreams, been inspired by fiction, realized music had crept into my imagery, and made sketches in situ occasionally, but taking photos and working in Photoshop have really become my sketch tools of choice,” she said of her process. “I like to collage photos, stretch and crop them, and do all sorts of tricks with them on my computer as I work; but all that is usually motivated by something that I see in a photo, or an idea I have in my head, that makes me look for an image or manipulate it in terms of a kind of vision I have, an idea about what a painting could be, so it’s not just horsing around. Although I think horsing around is an extremely important part of the creative process! Play is essential to making art. And then when I actually begin drawing or painting, a whole other creative interference takes place because of the medium I’m using, and that further alters the image I was motivated to make at first.”
Her focus on landscape derives from what she finds moving, beautiful, and other-worldly, although it exists everywhere around us — part of the mystical draw of nature, and perhaps why an interview about art and architecture often delved into environmental causes she is passionate about, which informs a larger sense of responsibility to the community where she creates, but also calls home.
“My sense of what is natural has changed a lot over the years, and of course I’m a person rendering the natural world, but it’s not the real natural world, it’s my version of it, so it’s an expression of my own self,” she said. “That said, I like that people identify the work with real places, and that they often have strong emotional responses to it. Oil painting is a really magical thing. Even when you look at very, very old paintings, like Northern European Renaissance paintings, for instance, of 500 years ago, you are experiencing the hand and the eye and the intent and the time and the personality of the person who made it even now. Painting and drawing hold whole human beings in themselves, and that’s a different experience from what we know as images, the more common visual currency of our culture. Art is utterly unique in that way, and that’s why it’s so important for all people to be taught art.”
“And I love space and light, in some very fundamental and maybe spiritual way, although I’ll be darned if I really know what that means,” she continued. “But of course that’s what artists and seekers do: wonder what it means, and in an artist’s case, by making art.”