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Griffis Hill Gardens combines art and the natural environment

COME ON IN — Cabins are available to rent on-site for campers, artists or volunteers.
ASHFORD — Since its inception in the early 1960s, Griffis Sculpture Park has been a destination for arts appreciators, picnickers and hikers, who want to explore the rolling hills of Ashford Hollow and investigate the large-scale sculptures nestled there.

Few have looked at the park as a destination for environmental exploration, but that is exactly what Carley Hill and Thomas Vannatter of Griffis Hill Gardens have created.

Hill, the creator and executive director of Griffis Hill Gardens, first conceived of the idea, as an artist in residence at the park, last fall.

After regrading Mill Valley Road and covering it with recycled asphalt, thereby creating a wider, more usable path for visitors, Hill began to expand what she calls “an intensive forestry stewardship redesign that has a committed focus on habitat redevelopment and water resource management.”

That redesign encompasses more than 50 acres of the park, that are dedicated to permaculture, as well as cabins for rent and educational programming that Vannatter said will help promote involvement in the site, rather than passive observance.

LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT SHROOM — The fern garden, replete with mushrooms, moss and other native species, nestles within a fallen tree. Photos by Lizz Schumer.

“We want to breathe new life into the place,” he said. “Come out and really get into it. Work out some aggression on a wood chipper. We’re trying really hard to make an intersection between art and environment.”

That intersection follows the original mission of the park’s founder, Larry Griffis Jr., who Vannatter noted had a documented commitment to the arts and the environment and the interstices between them.

“In his original writings, that’s what [the sculpture park] is really supposed to be: a place to appreciate science, environment and art,” Vannatter explained.

According to a statement by Hill, “Griffis Hill Gardens serves as a center for environmental exploration and education. The integral thread, running through all of our programs, is our mission to provide a platform for children, families and adults to engage with the intersection of art and nature.”

That engagement is evident at every turn, as visitors wander through Griffis Hill Gardens’ serpentine pathways, all of which are covered by mulch made from the same trees cleared to make the paths.

GLORIOUS GROVE — Carley Hill discovered the above apple grove when wandering the grounds, one day. It now serves as a story area, for children’s story time.

Vannatter, who serves as the administrative director, is the hands and feet of the organization.

“Griffis Hill Gardens is just me and Carley. We have volunteers, who come in and help us, but she has the vision and ideas of where she wants everything to go and I do all the gruntwork. If it’s raining, I write grants and look for funding.”

Vannatter, who has a background in sculpture and grantwriting, came to Griffis Hill Gardens from a sculpture park in Minnesota, where he cut his teeth on what he calls “the back end” of art.

“I would look at arts centers and wonder, ‘why does this place have all these great artists and no money and this other place has all this money and no artists?’ So I went to grad school to figure it out,” Vannatter said, with a laugh. After finishing graduate school in arts management at Carnegie Mellon University, he decided to put his education into practice and his boots in the mud.

“The best way to get people interested and, practically, to get funding, is to get people actively involved in what you’re doing, instead of passively hoping they’ll be interested,” Vannatter said, who added that he “wears all the hats” in the organization, along with Hill.

NATURAL SCULPTURE — This lightning-struck tree provides a framework for the fern garden.

Using the Ashford Hollow Foundation as a fiscal partner, Griffis Hill Gardens is seeking funding from grants and individual donations, according to Vannatter, in addition to people who want to get involved on a more concrete level, whether that includes taking workshops, volunteering or “getting covered in mud with us,” Vannatter added.

In the interest of staying actively involved, he lives and works out of one of the on-site cabins he and Hill have spent months renovating, that spent the better part of the last 10 years in disrepair.

“We have artists in residence living in one of these cabins, when they’re here, [and the other one] is available for people who work all day and want somewhere to sleep at night, anyone who wants to get away,” Vannatter explained.

The cabin area includes a picnic table, fire pit and wood, all available for tenant use.

Tucked further into the sculpture park’s grounds, Vannatter and Hill have been working to create outdoor classroom spaces, permaculture gardens and managed natural environments.

“There are three natural springs, that run through this property,” Vannatter explained. “We promote natural water management. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want the water to wash out the road’ and building a culvert, we redirect the water, to promote natural wild growth and go back into the wildlife.”

Griffis Hill Gardens follows the natural path of those springs, to find where the water already wants to go, and uses it to facilitate what Vannatter called “creative agro-solutions.”

One of those solutions is planting stumps from cleared trees upside down and using the roots system as a planter, for other species. When the stump decomposes, it fertilizes the ground, helping the new plants to grow.

“We promote forest permaculture,” Vannatter said. “We’ve been going into logging roads and pulling up ostrich ferns and native, edible species. We’re not just harvesting, but replanting them, not out of their natural habitats, but to a part of the habitat that’s closer to us.”

One of those habitats is a fern and moss garden that cuddles between the stumps and branches of a fallen tree, with stepping stones made of a felled hemlock Vannatter cut up and relocated, to make walking easier for visitors and harvesters.

“We are hoping to have performances here,” he said, gesturing to an embankment next to a natural pool that redirection of a spring has created. “We’re thinking performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” readings, that sort of thing. This space is perfect for it.”

Other outdoor classroom spaces include an apple grove that Hill discovered while wandering the grounds, one day.

“She was just out here, taking a walk, and stumbled upon these apple trees, all tangled up with other species,” Vannatter explained. Hill and Vannatter cleared the other trees out from between the fruit-bearing plants and revealed a grove with a natural stream running through, which created a natural setting for story readings, classes and workshops.

The grove is also the site of a hugelkultur experiment, which involves burying logs to create a raised, self-fertilized flower bed. As the logs decompose, they enrich the soil that holds water and requires minimal irrigation or fertilizer, Vannatter explained.

“We’re seeing how it goes, now,” he said, adding that the hugelkultur beds were only recently installed. “It’s one of those things, like the apple trees that we say, ‘Well, we’ll try it out and see what happens.’”

Next on the to-do list are a medicinal herb garden, working on traffic control and continuing to promote their stated mission of “empowering youth and adults with a broad scope of practical knowledge of the natural environment and providing the Southern Tier with a unique space for meaningful artistic experiences,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

“We’re really trying to push, across the board,” Vannatter said. “We want kids to come and play in the mud. This is about arts in education, about getting kids to run outside more, which they don’t get to do nearly enough, these days.”

In addition to a series of workshops, for both youth and adults, including kite-making, stump clustering, composting, foraging and more, Vannatter said he and Hill are always working to create opportunities to get visitors out to the park, into the garden and involved in their mission.

“This is my dream,” Vannatter said. “I’ve always said I wanted somewhere I could come and work; make art and live in the environment, and this was just perfect. It’s scary, how well Carley and I work together. We’re just perfectly attuned, to how we work. I couldn’t ask for a better partner to work with, to undertake this huge project. We’re both so passionate about it. We want to see it become a force.”

Griffis Hill Gardens can be found at or on facebook. Call 364-3022, or email The gardens are located within the Griffis Sculpture Park in Ashford Hollow.


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