Forgotten Buffalo recently posted the above photo of a derelict sign for Griffis Sculpture Park in East Otto, New York. This outdoor art museum was created by sculptor and painter Larry W. Griffis in 1966, making it the first sculpture park in the United States.
Tiny East Otto isn’t famous for much, being a tiny burg of a thousand people in Cattaraugus County. In fact the whole county is mainly remarkable for its poverty, its three Seneca Nation reservations, and Allegany State Park, which sits at its southern border attached to the much-larger Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania.
The whole region is on shale, making for beautiful gorges and the possibility that natural gas might sometime lift it out of poverty. The topography is Appalachian-hilly, covered with a hardwood forest of white ash, hickory, oak, tulip, hornbeam, shadblow, and basswood. In fact, the county’s biggest claim to fame might be the largest disease-resistant forest elm tree in the northeast, growing in the old-growth forest at Zoar Valley.
In short, it was not exactly the kind of place one would put a contemporary sculpture park, even in the judgment-free Swinging Sixties.Half a century later, the place seems downright alien.
Larry Griffis was born in Buffalo in 1924. At the time, Buffalo was still a hopping place, one of the biggest cities in the United States. By 1966, however, it was being sacked from within as white families left for its suburbs. A certain percentage of them extended their white flight into a back-to-the-land movement. My parents having traded our house in North Buffalo for a derelict farm in Niagara County, I was very familiar with the impulse that took professionals out of the city into places like East Otto—in fact, my parents’ good friends settled there.
The idea for the sculpture park came to Griffis while touring in Italy. Watching his kids play on the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, he recognized something fundamental about kids: they’re not that keen on spending time in fusty old museums. “Look at my kids,” he marveled. “I’ve taken them to the finest museums and galleries but they’ve come alive in this environment where they can interact and they can smell the flowers and they can touch things.”
Griffis is well-known for two Buffalo works: Spirit of Womanhood (1962), which plays with a giant hula hoop a few hundred feet from a copy of Michelangelo’s David alongside the busy Scajaquada Expressway, and Birds Excited Into Flight (1981) on Bidwell Parkway. Neither is nearly as bad as I remembered. In fact, the art which maintains some sense of timelessness in his sculpture park is Griffis’ own, not that of other invited artists. Perhaps it’s time for another look this summer.