When Kate Taylor first arrived in Sag Harbor from Los Angeles, she quickly unpacked, turned off her phone and got straight to work — much to her surprise.
Not that the novelist is a procrastinator, but it usually takes her a few days to settle into her groove, no matter the fellowship or residency. Apparently, the inaugural resident program in the heart of the village — spearheaded by artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik — is the exception.
If Taylor’s productivity is any indication, the initiative could be just what Sag Harbor needs, as part of a larger effort by the husband-and-wife team to give rise to a true cultural district on the East End.
“There’s no question that being around other working artists is completely stimulating,” Taylor said. “There’s no comparison between the work I got done at my parents’ summerhouse in a small town in northern Michigan and the amount of work I get done when I’m around another artist. It’s really invaluable. I don’t even know quite how to describe how special it is, and how important it is to any artist’s work, to be around other artists.”
Her compatriot in the resident house on Madison Street — formerly home to the late jazz musician Hal McKusick — is fellow creative Mia Funk, who is fervently at work on her nonprofit project, “The Creative Process.”
The traveling international exhibition features interviews and portraits of notable writers, artists and creative thinkers — from historians to scientists to city planners — which she said she hopes will inspire students and communities across the globe.
“I just feel that we all long to express ourselves creatively, and creativity is the source of every human achievement,” explained Funk, who is based in Paris. “What you’ve done here as a community here in Sag Harbor is so wonderful and inspiring. I think we should have more communities like this across America: people who come together and really work collectively and aren’t just concerned about themselves, but what they can do to bring everyone together and to make a community a stronger place.”
Through Thanksgiving, Funk will travel the East End, conducting interviews with creative minds from Westhampton to Montauk. Her wish list includes the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Julie Andrews, drawing from the pool of the Guild Hall Academy, for which Fischl is board president.
After each artist-to-artist conversation, which typically exceeds an hour, Funk approaches her canvas with a new understanding of her subject, she said.
“That way, the creative process goes beyond an interview,” she said. “That’s what I’m always saying to students. I feel it’s not enough just to read a book, watch a film, see a play, listen to a piece of music. I ask them, ‘What have you learned? How does that inspire your creative process? Have you grown from this?’ So I try to practice that in my own art, that I take something from our conversation and make something out of it, so it’s productive.
“Not all of us are meant to be artists, but I definitely feel that our obligation as citizens, as humans, is to be engaged and to try to leave the world a better place — and to take what we’ve learned and take it further,” she said.
During her stay in Sag Harbor, Funk plans to work with students from Pierson High School, The Ross School and Stony Brook Southampton, feeding off the sense of creativity here that Gornik says is undeniable.
“No one who comes to Sag Harbor misses its sense of energy, its diversity and its uniqueness, and we encourage residents to pick up on its rich creative history as per the writers, inventors, and artists who’ve lived here,” she said. “And since the schools are so excellent, any interaction the residents have with them should deepen that impression.”
In just a week, Taylor said she is feeling it — and attributes the editing she has already accomplished on her third novel to that, as well as the environment of the house.
“I’m really stimulated by being around other artists working, and so, I think that’s why I get so much done,” she said. “It’s just knowing Mia is in the house, doing her thing somewhere. That is so inspiring. And then we get together at dinner and chit-chat about how things are going — specific ideas about our projects, but also just ideas about art in general.”
Taylor’s book, which is the first of an eventual trilogy, tells the story of a young woman who is trying, and failing, to research her family’s history and resolve its legacy of violence. Primarily informed by her own effort at the same task, the novel has proved to be anxiety-inducing, she said, as have the 100 new pages she must complete before submitting the manuscript to her publisher in January.
But, at this rate, that just may happen, she said.
“I wasn’t expecting I’d get there while I was here, but I’m ahead of schedule,” she said. “I need to produce a lot of new material, and that’s been happening. Sag Harbor has this creative energy. There’s no other way I can think of why I’ve been doing such good work here. And it’s only been a week! I got here and I jumped right into it. It’s been really wonderful.”
Down the line, Fischl said he envisions the artist residence as an incubator of sorts, fostering creative partnerships between art, craft, technology and even virtual reality at the former Sag Harbor United Methodist Church building, which is currently under construction and being redeveloped into a center for the arts.
“In terms of long range, what we’re trying to do is bring into Sag Harbor a renewable energy of creativity,” he said. “We think that would be stimulating to everybody and carry on the great tradition that’s here. Sag Harbor’s always had a very robust art community since its very beginning.”
Once the former church is redeveloped, which Fischl estimates will be spring or summer of 2020, it will provide flexible studio space for visual artists, as well as housing — “Simple but not totally monastic,” Gornik said, quipping, “Was that a church pun?” — and a shared kitchen.
“As far as I’m concerned, the church can’t be done soon enough, but the reality is, there’s an awful lot of work that needs to be done on the inside of that church,” Fischl said. “Right now, we’re just trying to hurry up and finish the outside so it’s closed in and weatherproofed, so they can go inside and work comfortably and without damage.”
At present, the residency program doesn’t have a name. Perhaps it will adopt part of the Fischl Gornik Family Foundation title, he said, but in the meantime, Fischl affectionately calls it “The Madison: The Madhouse.”
“Maybe that will stick, I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “There are certain days where I think, ‘This is crazy, what we’re trying to do.’ So, The Madhouse fits.”
For more information about Kate Taylor and her novels, visit katherinetaylor.com. To learn more about Mia Funk and The Creative Process, visit creativeprocess.info.