Begun in 1984, the 499-piece sculpture garden created by retired schoolteacher Cornelius Lyon in Horseheads is nearly the largest in the world. It’s second only to Brookgreen in Myrtle Beach, which showcases 550 representational sculptures made by more than 300 artists. Lyon’s garden covers 44 acres that wrap around his home, and features many works that pay tribute to famous men and women who served their country in profound ways: Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin; Ely Parker, a chief of the Senecas, and Dr. Mary Walker, a surgeon in the Civil War, among others.
The 71-year-old was inspired to create his garden over 40 years ago when he visited the Grand Palais in Paris. “It was like being in an extra-terrestrial garden,” he said. “I saw a mural for the first time, and abstract art like I never knew existed. I thought, someday, I’ll have my own museum.”
Using scrap metal and skills he picked up in BOCES advanced welding and auto body classes, Lyons got started. “I figured that if I did 500 pieces and wrote more poems than Emily Dickinson, I’d have made a contribution,” he said.
Lyon categorizes his sculptures using self-created “isms.” “Nuclearism” is one of his historical themes, while “Bambooism” is accomplished using bamboo he grows on his property. There’s also “Stumpism” and the newest category, “Bottleism.” All are unique and help to differentiate one type of piece from another.
One category, “Arborism,” is really special. “Welcome to something you’ve never seen before,” Lyon said, leading me around the garden paths he cut out of the woods himself. When we get to the Arborism section, I see that Lyon has placed more than 100 sculptures in trees. Here, I discovered an element of his work that he calls “cross-fertilization,” in which he incorporates an unlikely element into the metal such as his handmade ceramics and glass made by a friend.
It’s that “unique-ism” that Lyon strives for. On a visit to New York City he saw metal sculptures that people simply walked past without noticing. “There was nothing to them. They were boring without paint, so I decided to learn how to paint,” he said. “My theory is you’re never too old to learn.”
Lyons works on his garden seven days a week, sandblasting, painting, maintaining and giving tours. “It’s a fulltime job,” he says, “and it’s pure bliss.”
Garden tours are free and by appointment only. To find out more, visit www.theclyon.com.
by Kimberly Price