Meet the ‘Saints’ of Sag Harbor’s Creative World

Eric Fischl at The Church with his portrait of Herman Melville. Michael Heller photo.

The color of James Fenimore Cooper’s eyes is the palest of blue. It may not have been their natural color, but on this clear, cold, blustery November morning, someone standing inside The Church on Madison Street could peer into the “whites” and see them take on the cast of the blue skies beyond.

James Fenimore Cooper by Eric Fischl.

Cooper’s is one of 20 portraits that now are framed by thin black mullions in the soaring windows of the former Sag Harbor Methodist Church. The deconsecrated edifice, which had passed through a number of hands before being purchased by artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik, is now on the verge of becoming an incubator for creative people.

The portraits, which are by Fischl and were installed last month, are the latest addition to a project that hopes to begin welcoming artists and writers for residencies by the middle of next year. As envisioned, The Church will host a rotating group of up to four individuals from a range of disciplines: sculptors, playwrights, dancers, musicians, virtually anyone in the creative fields, all who can make use of a variety of spaces throughout the reimagined church to work. There is studio space for artists, nooks and a library for writers, and a wide-open floor for dancers. Or any of them, actually, who want an open space for creating and the vast, clear light that is let in through the 18-foot high windows.

The interior of The Church at 48 Madison Street, Sag Harbor, showing Eric Fischl’s portraits of famed village residents in the windows. Michael Heller photo.

“We focused on creativity as the ambition of this place,” said Fischl during a tour of The Church last week.

Indeed, the artists-in-residence, who will stay in one of The Church’s four bedrooms for a couple of weeks, or a month or more, will be encouraged to “mix and mingle,” and explore possibilities beyond their own individual disciplines. And the building is designed for it.

In addition to a common kitchen and dining area for the residents in an addition at the back of the building, the interior spaces are “intimate and flexible,” said Fischl, saying they didn’t want to create preconceived ideas how a space should be used.

Daisy Tapley portrait by Eric Fischl.

“We wanted to let the artists or writers dictate how the space could be used at any given time,” he said.

Overlooking the creative spaces are the faces of some of the most creative people who have called Sag Harbor home, or at least have some clear connection to the village. They span the generations and centuries, from the 18th to the 21st; they span race and gender; and they cover almost all the disciplines of creative pursuit.

They range from well-known authors like John Steinbeck and James Salter, to the more obscure like Nathan J. Cuffee, the first published Native-American novelist on Long Island. There’s jazz saxophonist Hal McKusick, actress Elaine Stritch, choreographer George Balanchine and contralto Daisy Tapley, an African-American singer and pianist who was celebrated around the world 100 years ago and maintained a summer home in Sag Harbor.

Amaza Lee Meredith by Eric Fischl.

Artist and architect Amaza Lee Meredith, who developed the Azurest community in Sag Harbor and designed two of its homes, is represented, as is Nelson Algren — who Hemingway called the greatest post-war novelist writing in his day. Algren settled in Sag Harbor near the end of his life and tragically died in his kitchen here while preparing for a celebration of his acceptance into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The portraits, inspired by photographs, are executed in black oil paint directly onto frosted mylar. Those paintings are then photographed and digitally reproduced on a sticky-back mylar which is then applied to the glass of the windows. Each painting is about 35×32 inches.

Eric Fischl’s portraits in the windows of The Church. Michael Heller photo.

There were three criteria for inclusion in the portrait series, said Fischl.

“First, they had to be dead,” he laughed. “I didn’t want to deal with a lot of artists’ egos.”

Importantly, they also had to have a legitimate connection to Sag Harbor, not just the area around the Hamptons. In some cases that might mean they are simply buried here, as is the case with Balanchine, who, after visiting the village, became so enamored with Oakland Cemetery he requested to be interred there. Or, they were a regular visitor, such as the writer Langston Hughes, who regularly stayed at the home of William Pickens in the 1950s, writing some of his poetry beneath a tree on the property.

And finally, they needed to have a national or international career with their art.

And while there are plenty of recognizable names, the feminist writer Betty Friedan, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson and monologist and actor Spalding Gray, for example, there are those who have interesting life stories that are not often told.

Spalding Gray portrait by Eric Fischl.

Lady Caroline Blackwood, for example. An heiress to the Guinness fortune, Blackwood was a novelist, biographer, journalist and critic and had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She eloped to Paris with the portraitist Lucian Freud, who she then followed up with a number of affairs and husbands, including the poet Robert Lowell, who described her as “a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her widowed lovers.” Blackwood settled in Sag Harbor in 1987, writing here until her death in 1996.

Then there is Olivia Ward Bush-Banks, a poet and dramatist of Native-American and African-American descent, whose writing regularly appeared in the journal “Colored America.” Born on Glover Street in 1869, she moved to Rhode Island but returned to Sag Harbor many times to attend tribal meetings. She was an official historian of the Montauk nation and was the author of “Driftwood,” and “The Trail of Montauk (A Dramatic Sketch of Indian Life).”

Edgar (E.L.) Doctorow portrait by Eric Fischl.

Author and literary humorist Prentice Mulford was born in the Mansion House Hotel on Main Street — now the Municipal Building — and headed out to California in 1856 becoming part of the San Francisco “Bohemians,” where he spent time with other artists and writers, including the novelist Jack London. He, along with writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and others, formed the “New Thought” philosophy, from which came his books “Thoughts Are Things,” and “Your Forces and How to Use Them.”

And the artist Gordon Roberto Echaurren Matta-Clark, whose mother — who he visited regularly — lived in Sag Harbor. He had gained an international reputation for his site-specific work, frequently radically altering the interiors of abandoned buildings. He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 35 in 1978 and is buried in Oakland Cemetery.

“I thought it was going to be a stretch to get to 20,” said Fischl of the subjects for his portraits. “But my investigation led to a list of at least 100.”

“I knew some of the stars, like Balanchine, were here,” he said, “but I was surprised at the depth.”

In particular, he mentioned the lives and careers of Bush-Banks, who had developed a school that was a nexus for artists and writers of color, and Tapley, who had worked in Vaudeville and toured the British Isles, and Matta-Clark, who he had known of in New York in the 1970s, but was surprised to learn had a Sag Harbor connection.

Prentice Mulford portrait by Eric Fischl.

Looking forward, Fischl said it is his intention to rotate the 20 portraits in the windows, with the dozens of other creative people who have called Sag Harbor home.

It could be a year or so, or less, said Fischl, “and then we’ll let other artists interpret a new group.”

“I like the idea of engaging contemporary artists in the creative history that is Sag Harbor,” he said.

Some of the figures are better known than others and lived here more recently. Concerned about how the widow of E.L. Doctorow might feel about seeing the author’s portrait high in The Church’s windows every time she drove down Madison Street, he asked her if she minded.

“Not at all, please do,” he recalled her saying. “Only please put him in the same window as Herman Melville. He was Ed’s favorite author.” And, so, there is the black and white painting of the author of “Ragtime” just above the portrait of the author of “Moby Dick,” in the same space that once held brightly colored stained glass windows of religious figures from the Bible.

“In churches they canonize the saints and create art and windows to celebrate them,” observed Fischl. “Let’s do the same with our artists.”

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