Stone Quarry Hill Art Park Puts Nature and Art in Dialogue


Contemplating Man, Dorothy Riester

Olivia Poust, Editor-in-Chief

Tucked away in Cazenovia, N.Y., lies a Transcendentalist oasis. With sprawling fields, vistas, ponds, and forest trails, Stone Quarry Hill Art Park seems as though it was pulled straight from Thoreau’s Walden.

The park, which began as a preservation effort by Dorothy and Bob Riester, occupies 104 acres of conserved land and features over 70 works of outdoor art. Additionally, the Hilltop House and Studio offer indoor exhibits.

From the time it was founded, the goal of the Art Park has been to intertwine art with the landscape so that they are in dialogue with one another, while simultaneously invigorating and inspiring the human spirit. The interaction of humanity, art, and nature is felt throughout the park—even the home Riester designed on the property, the Hilltop House, is an A-frame building, which provides an eye-catching visualization of this trinity.

This idea of interconnectivity is present in much American Transcendentalist thought. The essential idea of this philosophy is that solitude and self-reflection, especially in nature, opens an individual up to a spiritual connection—whether that connection is with a deity or the universe is unimportant.

In his essay “Nature, Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity. A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world. It is the result or expression of nature, in miniature.”

Although there is nothing miniature about the Art Park, this idea of art being a more attainable expression of the vastness of nature rings true.

By establishing the way in which art is inspired by its interactions with nature, Emerson suggests that when art and nature work in tandem, they uncover the truths of the self and inspire a better understanding of the human experience.

“I think we often get so comfortable in our own environments that we don’t see, or don’t experience things that someone with a fresh or different perspective coming in and engaging with the environment can reveal to us,” said the park’s Executive Director Emily Zaengle. “For me, that’s what art does. It reveals those systems, and in doing so helps us better understand how we relate to nature and the environment.”

Through this description of the park, Zaengle unconsciously made the same connections as Emerson, linking the exploration into the self that is established by viewing art to the larger power of nature in self-discovery.

Both the art in the park and its natural landscape encourage this type of reflection. Horizon views, ponds, and trails in the woods all contribute to the natural beauty of the park, which in itself promotes a form of reflection.

“Our Artistic Director, Sayward Schoonmaker, likes to describe standing in the middle of the field as an art experience, and it absolutely is,” said Zaengle. “That’s what we offer here, land itself as art and art objects as art.”

As Zaengle mentions, even with the landscape itself serving as art, the Art Park differentiates itself from a typical experience in nature with the addition of created art.

One of the park’s original sculptures, Contemplating Man by Dorothy Riester, stands upon the hilltop. Hands in pockets, the man looks up and forward to the land and sky, his gaze into the vast, infinite expanse which surrounds him. He is Thoreau in Walden; he is Hawthorne’s Owen Warland in The Artist of the Beautiful; he is Emerson and Dickinson and Alcott.

The Contemplating Man depicts the kind of introspection that comes with gazing into nature and being amidst art. In his contemplation, he appears to have found a perfect contentment in himself and his surroundings.

In addition to the human-figured art, some of the sculptures provide a personification of the earth and of nature itself.

One such work is Earth Ear by Brian Rust. From the top of the hill, the shape of the structure is unclear, so the viewer needs to approach the form and take a closer look. As more of the sculpture comes into sight, it begins to take the appearance of an anatomical human ear sprouting up from the earth. This shared anatomy suggests a kind of connectivity between the human spirit and the natural forces of the earth, unifying two experiences into one shared universe.

Nature does not only listen as demonstrated in Earth Ear, but it also communicates. Situated atop what is referred to as “Picnic Hill” is Firat Erdim’s Atmospheric Listening Station. This display is an aeolian harp, which creates sound as the wind moves across its strings.

Listening to the music of the wind while overlooking the landscape creates a sense of serenity that can only be found through nature. To “listen and look,” as the sign in front of the harp requests, is to see deeper into oneself by way of the landscape.

“The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty…” begins Emerson. “Beauty, in its largest and profoundest sense, is one expression of the universe.” 

Once again, Emerson’s claims about nature, beauty, and the universe are applicable to the park and what its featured works accomplish. When looking at the exhibits and taking in the sights of the land, it is inevitable that the soul will find peace in the surrounding beauty.

Just half an hour from Syracuse, Stone Quarry Hill Art Park makes for the perfect day trip. The park was recognized by National Geographic as one of the “10 best sculpture parks in the world,” so it is a missed opportunity not to pay it a visit.