I recently went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for the first time. I didn’t think I’d have a comparable experience thereafter—until I came back to Western New York and went to Griffis Sculpture Park. Initial reaction: How did it take me 25 years to find out about this place?
I like to think of this park as nature’s Met Museum because it is a conglomerate of history and art, bound to enthrall anyone who walks through it. The history is that of Larry Griffis Jr., a Buffalo native and World War II veteran who developed his love and talent for sculpting when he moved to Rome and learned bronze casting. Since the 1960s, Griffis and other artists from all over the world transformed 400 acres of land into a vast outdoor gallery, creating the first sculpture park in the United States. As for the art—well, it’s everywhere.
The park is divided into two parts. The first is the Rohr Hill Road Site marked by colossal roadside sculptures. Just don’t make the mistake I did of passing by this area. As soon as you see the sculptures, pull over. In the trees beyond those are even more hidden pieces, so be sure to explore this area first if you plan to continue to what I like to think of as the main site, the Mill Valley Road Site.
Griffis Sculpture Park is a wonderland of sculptures, drawing inspiration from many eras and regions. Rough, bulky rock sculptures and shattered cement pieces with patterned etchings are Neolithic, while busts bearing a resemblance to the famed Queen Nefertiti are lurking among trees. Abstract shapes evoke themes of modernism and giant mushrooms bring to mind psychedelic pop art of the 1970s. Some of the most breathtaking pieces are nudes throughout the forest that are unquestionably derived from the sculptures of ancient Rome. Griffis was clearly inspired to sculpt when he lived there.
One of the best characteristics of the park is the engaging nature of the art. Colossal insects invite visitors to climb atop them, making for surreal photo ops. Other interactive pieces include a Zen-inspired area made for rock stacking, a maze resembling giant Connect Four grids and various structures with entryways and steps for climbing, such as the Castle Tower. It’s part interactive art exhibit and part treasure hunt, appealing to just about anyone’s inner child (or actual child, for the parents out there).
The sculptures may be the main attraction, but they certainly do not outshine the park’s natural beauty. Clusters of paper thin ferns that appear almost two-dimensional and wildflowers bursting with color are organic art. Friendly wildlife can be spotted as well, like fish swimming throughout the park’s ponds, various species of birds, scurrying chipmunks and maybe even a fawn or two. Three different hiking trails (marked green, blue and red) lead through towering trees, where running streams and the smell of fresh pine evoke serenity.
Visitors are invited to see the “forest” not only for the trees, however, but also for the sculptures, figures and busts, as well. Although most of the art is in the cleared-out areas, there are also plenty of pieces scattered throughout the woods, such as the Griffis Family Heads and a giant teepee (yes; you can go inside of it).
It’s sophisticated. It’s whimsical. It’s fun. It’s tranquil. Griffis Sculpture Park is a magical place, fit for a wedding, a graduation party, a Sweet 16 party, or just a day trip to do something out of the ordinary. To truly be able to find and experience everything the park has to offer, I recommend heading out there in the morning and packing a lunch. That way you will be able to make a day of it and explore the rest of the park. You will want to experience it all. Also, make sure you wear comfy clothes and a good pair of walking shoes and be sure to bring a water bottle along with you on the trail so you stay hydrated.
Griffis Sculpture Park is located at 6902 Mill Valley Rd. in East Otto. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors, and free for children 12 and under. While payment is based on the honor system, I urge you to actually pay to enter the park. For all the spectacular art you will get to see and different areas you will be able to explore, the time you’ll spend will be worth every penny. Please contribute to keeping this local treasure thriving and accessible for all.
Visit anytime through October 31 for the art alone but be sure to also keep an eye out for special events, like this year’s Griffis Sculpture Park Summer Festival on August 19, which will feature park tours, musical performances, live art, and much more.