by Chris Clemens
I recently had the opportunity to spend some time wandering what is now believed to be one of the largest sculpture gardens in the country, right in Horseheads, New York! When comparing the 40 acres that the display rests on, it may seem at first that competing with some of the better-known parks like Storm King Art Center in the Hudson Valley or Griffis Sculpture Park in Western New York would be difficult, but the number of installments puts this sculpture park into a top spot. Just last month, The C Lyon installed his 700th piece in the garden, effectively making it the sculpture garden with the most number of pieces in the country–a pretty incredible feat if you consider the fact that was done by one dude!
Cornelius “Pepsi” Lyon was born in Elmira in 1937 and given the soda-inspired nickname because his father got a job at the local Pepsi plant the day he was born–a nickname that he claims to this day is still a lucky one. Meandering his way through school and joining the Air Force at age 20, he didn’t learn to read until he taught himself at the age of 21. While stationed in Seoul, South Korea he experienced somewhat of a spiritual awakening. Lyon describes his awakening as being “flashed” with a profound understanding of his role to the world. He understood right away that the only thing he wanted to do was create art and the insight planted a seed of determination. He bopped around the country the next couple decades and then settled back in his geographical roots where he started constructing a home for his family in 1980. Four years later when the home was finished, he installed his first sculpture on the property which has grown into an Upstate explorer’s destination.
Lyon is somewhat of a self-taught artist. When he began taking classes decades ago, a studio owner actually forced Lyon to go create elsewhere out of fear that his name would somehow be sullied by Lyon’s creations. Not to be dissuaded by naysayers, he has spent decades learning metal sculpting, paint application, sandblasting and even glass blowing and much of it was done figuring things out as he went along and learning by any means available. The 40 acres of trails that twist and wind through his wooded property in Chemung County are lined with decades worth of hard work and lessons learned. Even with a full day of walking a visitor probably wouldn’t get a chance to truly view every piece.
The shear number of sculptures and size of the lot are intriguing, but a closer look at the collection reveals a dedicated story where many of the pieces are specifically an homage to certain heroes of Lyon’s. Tributes to war heroes, civil rights activists, and even Dr. Jonas Salk are represented by individual sculptures and each symbol on each sculpture is carefully considered to that end. Even two seemingly random shapes on a disc are probably meant to indicate a time like on a clock, though without knowing it they may just seem abstract or random.
Lyon has even gone so far as to create sections in the property where the majority of the sculptures in that region pay homage to a particular type of artwork. The ‘Gafferism’ section is loaded with sculptures decorated with handmade glass pieces. The ‘Bambooism’ section has otherworldly looking shapes created by collecting different types of branches and makes the set from the Blair Witch Trials seem like child’s play. ‘Arborism’ pieces hang among the naturally occurring trees throughout, while ‘Bottleism’ (possibly my favorite) pays tribute to the mysterious art form of bottle trees. In fact, Lyon aimed so high to ensure that his bottle trees were unique that for one of them he even made his own bottles to adorn it with!
My good friend Dennis and I spent a couple hours getting a personal tour of the trails and hanging with Cornelius and we both agreed that it’d be a cool place to see in different seasons, with the artwork of Mother Nature changing the backdrop for each of the pieces. If you’re interested in visiting and hanging with one of the most interesting guys in Upstate New York, I’d recommend setting aside at least a couple of hours to spend in the woods (and you still wouldn’t be able to see everything). There is no charge to visit the sculpture park, but please remember that it is on private property, so just contact them before you visit using the website link below to set up a time. The trails are fairly easy to walk, but for those who are in need, Cornelius has a pretty awesome ATV that he will take you around in. When you’re there, tell him I say hello!
Sources and Additional Reading
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens