Sea Cliff: Long Island’s Artistic Masterpiece

Sea Cliff

Old, tarnished knives spill onto the floor in front of a table on which a rustic suitcase rests alongside a small vase of red roses. A woman and man sit in complete silence beneath a single spotlight.

“I happen to like cold pizza!” screams the man, ripping the flowers from the vase and madly stuffing them into his mouth.

Tribal beats pulsate from the walls and fill the room. The couple clutch the knives, their limbs jerking in robotic motions as their heads bob to the rhythm. They remain perfectly in sync with one another, sporadically stabbing the blades into the table.

Without warning, the man leaps from his chair onto the floor and slithers gracefully beneath the table while the woman proudly watches him with lingering eyes.

Each move is engaging as he seems to float across the floor in a dreamlike trance. Contorting and twisting into pretzel-like poses and positions, the man collapses onto a vintage rug and convulses, violently. The music stops.

“Okay, guys, good job,” says 22-year-old Sarah Mustek. Taylor Morrison, 25, rises from the floor, smiling, and Julie Mounsey, 22, hops from the chair, giggling.

All three are members of Small Claims Court, an art performance group rehearsing vignettes from their debut production, “The Fall of Rome,” in the back of the Creative Arts Studio, one of dozens of art spaces, studios and galleries dotting Sea Cliff, the one-square-mile bohemian enclave hidden atop the breathtaking precipices of LI’s famed Gold Coast.

Small Claims Court
Art performance group Small Claims Court

The storybook town is unlike any other on Long Island. Grand Victorian homes—some more than a century old—jut from sloping, curving streets bordering pristine beaches and more than a dozen parks. Artists nightly serenade the sunset. There are annual arts and crafts fairs, music festivals and a strong sense of community among its residents— who comprise a colorful collage of free-spirited painters, sculptors, musicians, families and business owners proud of their shared uniqueness. In the summertime visitors will find many locals walking the village barefoot; they may also likely catch a glimpse of Sea Cliff Mayor Bruce Kennedy, upside-down, performing headstands on his paddleboard just offshore its whimsical beachfront.

“The thing about Sea Cliff is: Everyone takes ownership of this village,” he says, seated among dozens of onlookers at the annual Sea Cliff Palooza July 13—a music festival hosting an array of acts in a gazebo set right in the sand. “It’s the people’s. They take ownership, they take pride, and they care. With that, you end up with a community unlike any other.

“This is the most non-judgmental and accepting place you are ever going to come across,” smiles Kennedy, sporting a tie-dye t-shirt. “We are truly special people.

“This was my creation; this is my vision of what Sea Cliff is: a celebration of the arts,” he boasts, pointing enthusiastically to the gazebo. “We wanted a place where musicians can perform, where plays can happen, where kids can dance! It’s important for government to embrace the arts and encourage the talent in others. It brings a community together. It is everything.”

Sea Cliff Palooza
MEMORABLE MELODIES: Besides yearly arts and crafts fairs, Sea Cliff is also home to an annual Palooza festival, which showcases local musicians and provides attendees a day full of music.
(All photos by Cassidy Kammerer/Long Island Press)

Sea Cliff has a rich history steeped in the arts. Originally a Methodist campground and religious meeting site during the mid-1800s, the town emerged as the setting for live theatrical performances by the turn of the century.

“Sea Cliff always had a flare to it,” explains Sea Cliff Beach Committee member Elaine Neice, 41, who grew up in the village and whose group has been sponsoring Palooza for the past three years. “There were a lot of artists who lived here, and there were a lot of celebrities who would take the ferry across from the city and spend their summers here. It always had that community vibe.”

That “vibe” reverberates through Sea Cliff to this day—and it’s hard to shake, says John “Superfly” Skvarla, a 37-year-old professional BMX biker, artist and resident who was MCing the Palooza.

“It wasn’t until I left Sea Cliff and moved back that I had a new respect for it and appreciation for it,” he says. “I lived in Texas for a winter, and then lived in Brooklyn until I moved back here. It’s such a small town where everyone really knows each other. I have the mayor’s phone number; the trustees text us jokes back and forth—there really is no place like it.”

“It’s the people that draw people to Sea Cliff because it’s a very special place,” agrees soft-spoken Andy Gertler, a 53-year-old self-titled “Ephemeral Extremist.” “Look at this,” he smiles, stretching his arms to the crowd. He is donating free sandcastle-sculpting lessons at “Sand Castle University”—a gigantic sand box in his backyard—for a raffle. Sea Cliff is “just different,” he says, high-fiving the kids walking by. “It’s filled with artists, writers and musicians; it’s a fantastic place to be.”

Gertler travels the globe creating improbable sculptures from ice, sand, pumpkins and snow. His work has been featured on the Travel Channel’s Sand Masters, and he’s done commissions for major clients such as Yahoo, Oprah’s O Magazine and Atlantis Beach Resorts in the Bahamas.

The village’s multiple arts fairs, its largest and most well-known being the annual Sea Cliff Arts and Crafts Fair, which took place this year on July 14, offer many locals their first chance to debut their creations to the world.

“This month is the first time I’ve ever sold any paintings,” says Julia Cagney, a first-time exhibitor, with a grin.

Though she resides in Bayville, the 66-year-old former Roslyn art teacher often frequents Sea Cliff. She is kept up-to-date on festivals and shows as a member of the village’s arts council. Cagney has received multiple invitations to present her work, but never felt her art was quite ready to be shown to the world until this year.

“They kept sending me invitations to art shows, and I kept saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, someday.’ It was just the right time,” she says of her premier at a mini-show in the spring. “The people were so sweet to me. The other artists showed me how to set up and what to do.”

“I love Sea Cliff,” says Cagney, as she greets a potential buyer. “I think people in Sea Cliff are looking for artsy stuff… I’m watching people walk by and they look like artists; they’re dressed like artists. They appreciate it.”

Identical twins Alicia Andrus and Michele Sabatino sure do.

Having grown up in the next town over, Glen Head, the 38-year-olds spent much of their youth exploring Sea Cliff. Now they balance their love of art and creativity with their day jobs as speech pathologists.

“I went down to the beach yesterday and someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re the bracelet lady,’” laughs Michele. “I got that reputation now.”

“People come to Sea Cliff with the thought in mind that you’re going to find more handmade stuff,” adds Alicia, whose arms, like her sister’s, were covered in a half-dozen custom-made bracelets sliding from elbow to wrist with each movement, sometimes clanging together.

“You’re not going to come here and find a bunch of stuff that was made somewhere else,” she adds.

Sea Cliff shops
ART HAVEN: Sea Cliff, just one square mile, is dotted with various quaint and quirky shops and galleries.

“It’s a very artsy town,” says Michele. Sculptor, jeweler and former marine biologist Christina Bjenning, 41, loves wearing her handmade creations, too—forged from rocks and shells and accompanied by semi-factual back stories which she provides.

“Sometimes I want to know if someone buys a piece because of the stone or because of the story,” she smiles. “There’s something about Sea Cliff, the people that live here; it’s almost like there’s a net that catches everybody and brings them back. People took a trip in the ‘60s and never left.”

Perhaps it’s because art is part of the village’s very makeup itself, embedded in its DNA.

Music and laughter flood the streets from pubs and restaurants. Eye-catching creations—such as a rotary-dial telephone hanging from a neighbor’s tree, a lawn sculpture born from a pile of bicycle frames and a random wall of mirrors—pull at passersby from nearly every direction.

Barefoot residents still in their beachwear walk the streets with a smile on their faces while other residents strum guitars from their porches. From blankets in Hippie Park generations of dreamers gaze at melting sunsets smearing orange and pink into the waters of Hempstead Harbor.

Quaint bungalows splashed with pastels hidden amid Tim Burton-esque fairytale landscapes line Sea Cliff Avenue, the main drag. Vintage street lamps adorned with hanging baskets of flowers decorate sidewalks along old storefronts displaying unfurled American flags. Outside Bart’s Barber Shop, where Joe Mazzeo has been cutting hair for more than 50 years, an old-fashioned red, white and blue barber pole hangs.

“You’re a stranger here but once, and you’ll always want to come back,” he says, standing amid the walls of his shop plastered with photos he’s collected over the years. “There aren’t really many villages that have a real village feel like this anymore— just the vibe of it here, it’s very comfortable.”

Creative Arts Studio’s façade seems to sum up Sea Cliff’s mission in one word.

“Inspire” proclaims the white block lettering hanging in its main window, next to the late artist Herb Arnold’s “The Buddha Americana”—a breathtaking sculpture created from welded toy car parts, soda cans, nuts and screws.

“Art not only can be used as an expressive means, but a way to bring a community together,” says Tracy Arnold Warzer, 55, the studio’s founder and director, as the members of Small Claims Court prepare for their next scene.

Sam Mayer, a 22-year-old text developer from Texas, tinkers with his laptop to ensure that the music will be just right while Warzer’s daughter Rebecca, 19, stands atop a ladder fixing a projector.

“It’s a small town and that is very welcoming; its incredible artistic support is pretty overwhelming,” Warzer says. “I just really love Sea Cliff. It’s just not like any other place on Long Island.”