The huge sculptures, some of them more than 30 feet tall, with only trees and blue sky as a backdrop certainly catch the eye. In a wooded area in western New York, a trio of larger-than-life aluminum schoolgirls is caught in carefree repose, as if enjoying a picnic. Nearby, an intimate glade harbors a fanciful butterfly chair sprouting metallic wings, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
The chair is one of several works contributed by Mark Griffis, a furniture designer and son of the founder of this unusual place, the Griffis Sculpture Park, in Ashford Hollow, N.Y.
The 425-acre outdoor art museum featuring more than 200 exhibits was the brainchild of Buffalo, N.Y., artist Larry Griffis Jr. While studying in Italy in 1961, the maverick sculptor visited the ruins of Emperor Hadrian’s villa. Another son, Simon, now the park’s executive director, describes his father’s moment of inspiration. “He picnicked on the grounds, watching his children playing on the ruins. Dad got the idea to create a park with the same sort of marriage between art and nature. His vision was that art should be an interactive experience—touchable, climbable and free to everyone.”
In 1966, Griffis purchased 100 acres of Ashford Hollow farmland and erected 15 of his own welded steel works on a hillside along a country road. The angular, Picasso-like figures towering 25-feet instantly captured the community’s imagination.
It still does. Ashford Hollow residents point out that Griffis Sculpture Park was the first of its kind in the nation. But for this close-knit farming community of under 300 in New York’s northern Allegheny foothills, it’s about more than firsts. It’s about working together to preserve a treasure that’s become the area’s legacy.
“There really is something special about art that’s in the open instead of in a museum,” says Colleen Smith, a graduate of nearby St. Bonaventure University. “It seems to be something more on the level of the average person. You can experience these statues at your own pace in an unspoiled environment. As you walk among them, they have so much personality they seem to come alive.”
Inspired by this dramatic, user-friendly art, the hamlet’s residents embraced its enthusiastic creator to form the Ashford Hollow Foundation for the Visual and Performing Arts. Through fundraisers and private donations, the foundation acquired another 325 acres and drummed up commissions for additional sculptures. More than 60 artists worldwide have contributed an impressive collection that boldly complements the landscape.
“What makes Griffis unique is its larger-than-life blend of realism and abstraction,” says David Reade, former park tour director.
Although similar attractions have appeared around the country, the park still draws 35,000 visitors a year. A fee box is set up on the grounds, requesting admission from visitors—$5 for adults, and $3 for seniors and students. Children under 12 get in free.
“Most sculpture parks are really gardens, manicured and flat,” Reade says. “Here art melds into the landscape. Each piece was placed with a particular setting in mind—not just willy-nilly.”
The park, which spans the nearby towns of Ashford (pop. 2,223) and East Otto (pop. 1,105), also serves as a nature preserve. “We offer 10 miles of trails where people can hike, bike, even snowshoe past art exhibits and enjoy wildlife at the same time,” Simon Griffis says. The trails are popular with Ashford Hollow residents and others from surrounding towns in Cattaraugus County.
Recently, with costs rising and the addition of artists’ cabins and a visitors’ center, the park was faced with financial challenges. In response, the community rallied, pitching in to clean up trash, mow the grounds and maintain trails.
“It’s amazing,” Reade says, “that in 35 years a park this size is still able to exist largely on donations. That’s a real tribute to this town.”