YEARS ago sculptor Larry Griffis, Jr., was outside Rome on a sunny day having a picnic with his family among a jumble of quiet ruins and green hills.
A wave of rare familial and environmental well-being passed over him as he saw his children playing in the sunlight. Thinking back to that moment, he says, "I thought, `Wouldn't it be great to have sculpture here rather than ruins?"
In his mind's eye he envisioned a vast, rolling, parklike setting sprinkled with all kinds of sculpture. It would be a place where trails passed through forests, meadows, around ponds. Families could come and enjoy the blend of art, earth, sky, and openness.
Somewhat like Kevin Costner in the film "Field of Dreams," Griffis has gone from a bold vision to an even bolder reality. Just off Route 219, and 43 miles south of Buffalo, Griffis, his sons and daughters, and dozens of volunteers, have created the Griffis Sculpture Park.
Standing on a hillside here on an overcast, misty day, Griffis says his mother bought 400 acres in 1967 and donated the land to the nonprofit Ashford Hollow Foundation. Slowly, gradually, trails were created, sculpture built, positioned on hillsides, and tucked under trees.
Today, Griffis Sculpture Park is an unsurpassed outdoor experience. It transforms the idea of a recreational "park" into a kind of triptych encounter where art, nature, and discovery come together.
Although well-known locally, the park is virtually unknown outside of New York. "We don't advertise," says Griffis. "We don't charge admission, and this is not a highly groomed place. We want to keep it natural." Between 20,000 and 25,000 people a year come to the park. Many leave donations.
"The sculptures seem to draw people from place to place," says Griffis, who lives in the park and maintains it along with the help of dozens of volunteers. "People come here for a refreshing day," he says. "A guy told me the other day, `I love this place,' and I said, `I did it just for you.' "
Over half of the 200 or so sculptures, positioned in groups or alone, were created by Griffis. But many were made by other sculptors, mostly from New York. Some are collaborations. Artists include Leon Gerst, James Suris, Wes Olmstead, Joe Jackson, Roberly Ann Bell, Glenn Zweygardt, and Griffis' sons, Mark and Larry. Many sculptures have been commissioned with funds from the New York Council on the Arts.
"Visitors can touch the sculptures, climb on them," says Griffis. "The sculptures become an environment, and the whole park becomes a work too." Seated on a power mower, Griffis mows the paths and often creates new paths because worn areas tell him the visitors are walking in different directions. "People are part of the flow here, " he says. "This park will never be finished. Frankly, I've lost count of the sculptures." He grins, his white mutton-chop beard spreading, as if to say, does it matter?
A walk along the trails and through the meadows at the South Hill site can bring a visitor face to face with huge, steel insects such as beetles, spiders, and dragonflies. Just at the edge of a forest is a perfectly harmless 28-foot cobra.
Near another clump of trees a life-size giraffe seems to nibble on leaves. Gaze across an open field and a 10-foot man with his leg raised stares back. On a hill above a pond, a colorful wrought-iron maze invites kids to climb it. Another pond is ringed with nude figures. Several more figures seem to blithely hover just above the surface of the water while live ducks glide among them.
Sculptures in the park range from representational to non-objective; many of Griffis' works are made from welded iron. Other sculptures are made from steel, aluminum, bronze, and wood. At the East Hill Ashford site, whimsical iron figures from 20-to-25-feet tall - some with long, dangling earrings that move in the wind - are positioned like sentinels along a road. Griffis says these are designed "to alert and greet visitors" and are titled, "Ladies in Waiting."
Many of the works were made at the Essex Art Center in Buffalo, part of the Ashford Hollow Foundation. The facility there includes a foundry, a gallery, and artists' living and studio spaces.
Each year the park holds a music festival on a sloping hillside to raise money. While volunteers lay thick beams and a roof on the wooden platform that serves as the music stage, Griffis takes a few photos of the men at work. "Last year," he says,"about 3,500 people came to hear blue grass, jazz, a brass ensemble, and watch several kinds of dancing."
"My sons will keep the park going after I'm gone," says Griffis, looking up the hillside to a big sculpture with two children climbing into and over it. "People love it here because..." he searches for the right words, "... there's no threat at all here. We've had blind people say they love it, all ages, all kinds of people come here and enjoy it." For information about the park, write to: The Ashford Hollow Foundation, 6902 Mill Valley Road, East Otto, NY 14729, or call (716) 257-9344.