A 21-foot sculpture of an Etruscan warrior raising his sword skyward towers above scrubby trees in the Texas Hill Country, and a life-size horse, crafted out of chrome, appears to whinny at all who pass.
Nearby, whimsical-looking flowers made of stainless steel sway gently in the breeze, while a giant winged eagle creates a recognizable silhouette atop a golden base of welded steel.
Fashioned from bronze, cement, marble, steel and other materials, the sculptures are among 145 large-scale artworks that dot the Benini Galleries and Sculpture Ranch, a 147-acre property west of Johnson City, Texas (pop. 1,191).
The unconventional ranch is the brainchild of Italian-born artist Benini, 68, and his Ohio-born wife, Lorraine Benini, 63, who created their outdoor art gallery shortly after moving to central Texas in 1999. At first, they displayed sculptures from their personal collection, then they opened up the landscape to other sculptors to exhibit works from around the world.
Today, 20,000 visitors a year roam the ranch for free to view the sculptures and attend lectures about art. The endeavor is funded solely by the sale of Benini's works, which range from $5,000 to $100,000 each, making it Texas' largest private fine arts project.
"We had the opportunity to allow people access to artwork and we chose to do that," Lorraine says. "We're about bringing people together in the name of art."
Visitors can follow a walking path or drive along a gravel road to view contemporary sculptures that range in styles from traditional to abstract.
"It's mystic," says Linda Psalmonds, 48, of San Antonio, who frequently brings international guests to see the outdoor sculptures. "It is such a combination of the future, past and present in an energetic, yet calming environment that defies words."
Seventeen sculptures comprise the permanent ranch collection, and dozens more are on temporary display. Many in the rotating exhibit are for sale, and proceeds benefit the artists, not the ranch.
"The moment you put profit motive into it, the whole dynamic changes," says Benini, a painter and sculptor. "We are part of the growth of these artists. There are absolutely no goals, and that's probably the advantage this experiment has."
The benevolent environment has turned the ranch into a cultural outpost where artists meet to exchange ideas, and visitors can learn about the theories and techniques behind pieces of art.
A bimonthly weekend lecture series, called Arts Encounters, began in 2005 and features sculptors, painters, poets and other artists.
The ranch includes a 4,000-square-foot building that is open to visitors and houses a studio, a fine arts library and a gallery featuring some of Benini's own paintings from his 40-year career.
Artist Bettye Hamblen-Turner, 49, of Del Rio, Texas (pop. 33,867), praises the Beninis for rounding up artists and their works for everyone to enjoy.
"The Beninis come with huge gifts," says Hamblen-Turner, whose welded chrome horse sculpture titled "Hi-Ho" is part of the ranch's permanent collection. "They are strong people and very giving. Usually when you meet people with talent and strength they guard what they've gained, but their focus is sharing it."
For the artist Benini, who has lived in 12 countries and immigrated to the United States in 1977, the ranch provides a wide-open venue to contribute culturally in an area of America that energizes him personally and artistically.
"I'm totally turned on by the night sky here," says Benini, who paints at night and sculpts and ranches during the day. "After all, the stars are big and bright . . . deep in the heart of Texas."