Griffis Hill Gardens

   In the autumn of 2012, Griffis Hill Gardens was established as an outdoor arts and education center for all ages at the unique Griffis Sculpture Park in East Otto, NY. Griffis Hill Gardens offers cabins in the woods, outdoor adventures, artistic workshops, and land management classes to allow individuals and groups to connect with one another as well as nature.
   Beginning in 2011, Eden-native and Buffalo art-scene staple Carley Hill served as Griffis Sculpture Park’s artist-in-residence. Hill’s family had maintained a professional relationship with the Griffis family through her life. Additionally, while teaching at Buffalo State College as a tech in the Sculpture Department, she assisted Simon Griffis with the metal casting education program. Kenneth Payne, Griffis Sculpture Park board member and head of the college’s sculpture department, then asked Hill to become the park’s artist-in-residence. Over the years, she developed a strong connection to the land and resolved to build more interest in the 450-acre campus stretching through the Enchanted Mountains.
   As Hill’s residency neared its end, long-time friend whom she met during her tenure in a Pittsburgh art school Thomas Vannatter had just coincidentally left his job as Development Associate for the Boston Center for the Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. He was planning to return to his home state of Indiana. Knowing he would be driving through the Southern Tier, he contacted Carley to visit. She showed him the campus and he returned to Indiana unable to stop thinking about it. He had also in his past served as Development Associate for Franconia Sculpture Park in Shafer, Minnesota.
   Hill knew about Vannatter’s background at Franconia and as Master of Arts Management from Carnegie Mellon University - where he was matriculated when the two met in Pittsburgh. She called to commission him to perform a study and write a report of what would be possible for the park. According to Vannatter, “I came for two weeks and ended up staying two months.” The Griffis Sculpture Park Board of Trustees was so impressed with the report they wanted to bring on both to run the park; however, the board could not muster the funds to do so. The compromise was that Hill and Vannatter would develop an offshoot organization that would utilize a 65 to 80-acre, depending on whom you ask, tract of the park.
   Thus, Griffis Hill Gardens was formed and is currently less than one year old. Still a fledgling organization, the project is just learning to stand on its own. Much of the help has come from Hill’s family-owned company, West Seneca-based Union Concrete in the form of construction equipment, supplies, and labor. Hill and Vannatter work tirelessly as jacks-of-all-trades in order to nurture their newborn into the grand vision they hold for its future. The project has made tremendous strides and is still seeking volunteer help and philanthropic support.
   A growing number of people have taken interest in the practices behind the growing of their food and the management of the forests and resources around us.
   Joel Salatin, self-described renegade-farmer in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia and author of Folks, This Ain’t Normal, says that we, as humans, have the capacity to become either great stewards or pillagers of the land and nature. With our dexterity and ability for higher reasoning, learning, and cooperation, we can choose to deplete or nurture the soil and resources around us.
   Sustainable, organic, zero trans-fats, fair-trade, pesticide-free, Monsanto, rBGH-free, FSC-certified may all ring a bell and elicit a visceral reaction. Some may have noticed the increased demand, possibly even within themselves, for greener - no not the color - products that are more environmentally friendly. The entire market has shifted, allowing companies once on the fringes, such as Dr. Bronner’s, to gain popularity. The shift has also created a phenomena popularly known as greenwashing - a play on the term whitewashing, where a company or foodservice provider spends more on marketing a product with terms such as fresh or natural than shifting the environmental and human consequences of its production and distribution.
   One shift in practice has created the emergence of a new farming technique gaining international acclaim called permaculture. Permaculture introduces a variety of indigenous plant species to a forest, and utilizes existing water systems to create an ecosystem where food is produced, and natural pest managers such as dragonflies, frogs, and birds are encouraged to proliferate.
   Hill’s long reaching connections include a student of permaculture, who has helped her shape over 10 of the acres into a sustainable forest garden. Hill’s roots in construction informed her architectural gullies - made from the abundant natural springs abounding in Griffis Hill Gardens - to create vernal pools where the water will constantly run, a feature that will serve multiple purposes, including the prevention of Tiger mosquitoes from invading as well as offering a calming influence to observers. One pool, according to Hill, is specifically designed for centering and for teaching. Two springs create a moat in the shape of an oxbow surrounding a teaching pedestal that will harbor beautiful invasive species - creeping wisteria, for example - while preventing them from overtaking the native species. Students will surround the elevated teacher on a natural, hypoallergenic moss bed that is of the earth and just as comfortable as most exercise mats.
   Griffis Hill Gardens features workshops for both youth and adults. Additionally, cabins are available to rent year-round and abut a flowing stream next to a bonfire pit.  Renting groups have access to the acreage included in the garden.
   Though there are planned events, any individual or group may request special events that work with their schedule. Interested parties are encouraged to visit the Griffis Hill Gardens website, for information and pricing, and to email to schedule. Events, including movie screenings, are posted online, as well as on the Griffis Hill Garden Facebook page.
   Regular youth workshops include Fly a Kite!, which will include instruction on how to build Diamond, Delta, Sled, and Tetrahedral kites as well as in-depth demonstrations on how to fly. The kite workshop is held the third Saturday of each month - this month on Aug. 17 - and includes all materials for $20. Story Hour in the Sacred Grove is a freebie that happens the second Sunday of each month (Aug. 11).  Carley reads to whoever attends in what she calls an “intimate and magical landscaped environment.” Other youth workshops include Wilderness Adventures, Cross-Country Orienteering, Youth Painting Workshops, and Moss Magic.
   Adult workshops include How to Grow Shiitake Mushrooms!, All About Composting, Stump Clustering (a permaculture concept), and an Intensive Medicinal Plant Series. Sacred Art in Theory and Practice will take place Sept. 6-8. The three-day intensive will address nurturing the creative impulse as well as the hands-on application of paint with numerous mediums.
   In the fall, Griffis Hill Gardens is partnering with local businesses in Springville to partake in Halloween festivities. The park will host a reading of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and a nighttime walk through illuminated statues.
   Griffis Hill Gardens is seeking volunteers to pitch in. If interested, rally your friends and send an email their way. Having myself once volunteered, I can say the experience is truly rewarding. Businesses wishing to form a symbiotic relationship should email as well.
   Griffis Hill Gardens is located at the south entrance of Griffis Sculpture Park, near the intersection of Rohr Road, Bailey Hill Road, and Mill Valley Road. Its mailing address is PO Box 807, Ellicottville, NY 14731.
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