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Griffis Sculpture Park unveiled 50 years ago

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A 350-acre hilltop was “ablaze with autumnal colors and the talents of poets, ballet dancers folk singers and community theater groups.”

The occasion for this outdoor romp of grassroots culture in Cattaraugus County was the “Octoberfest” at which the Ashford Hollow Foundation unveiled Griffis Sculpture Park to some 2,000 people on this weekend 50 years ago.

“Mother Nature, an undisputed artist in her own right, dipped into her warmest fall colors to paint a lush setting while a bright golden sun provided shirtsleeves weather,” the Olean Times Herald reported in its Oct. 14, 1968, edition.

The backup of traffic up the winding, dirt road to the site was tedious, but once at the top, “the fans of art were ushered into a Shangri-La of nude aluminum bathers and a variegated garden of steel abstract forms.”

Makeshift stages on an open, sloping hillside were used for a five-part program by the Empire State Ballet Co., facades and jazz suit excerpts by the Seenie Rothier Dance Co. scenes from “The Glass Menagerie” by the Springville Workshop and a short play, “Grenade on Avenue B,” presented by the Theater Group from Buffalo under the direction of Guy Griffis, whose works adorn the park.

“While the players and dancers emoted under the balmy sun, works of poetry were read to small groups in nearby wooded bowers by Loren Keller, Marjorie Naft and Larry Hanratte with Roger Stone stringing classical guitar background notes,” the OTH reported. “The sculpture garden in the woods also was the choice for songs and ballads by Sherry Vane and Don Hackett.”

Larry Griffis Jr., the creator and visionary of both the Griffis Sculpture Park and the Essex Art Center of Buffalo, grew up in Buffalo. He was always an artist but did not dedicate himself to the arts until later in life, according to Nila Griffis Lampman, executive director of the park.

After fighting in World War II, starting a family and running a successful hosiery company, Griffis decided to leave his life in Buffalo and move to Rome to learn bronze casting.

Griffis already had the commission for the “Spirit of Womanhood,” which gave a decided focus and urgency for his move and work there. It was in Italy, amongst the ancient ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, where Griffis was inspired to create the first outdoor sculpture park.

As his children played throughout the sculptural ruins set in a beautiful landscape, he realized the importance of physical interaction with artwork in an always changing natural setting.

On his return from Rome, Griffis made it his mission to create a haven for imagination and play for his fellow neighbors to enjoy. After a short stint at the top of Kissing Bridge ski resort, the park landed in Ashford Hollow. The Griffis Sculpture Park started with a gift from Griffis’ mother, Ruth, of 125 acres of farmland. As the park’s needs grew so did the property.

Today, the sculpture park is more than 400 acres of land with around 250 sculptures exhibited.

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