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A Lyon in the Garden
by Martha Horton (Mountain Home Magazine, 2013)
The sculptures at The C Lyon Sculpture Garden in Horseheads, New York, are unusual, ranging from quirky to eloquent, from start to fanciful. But the whole experience of visiting The C Lyon Sculpture Garden is what qualifies as unique. The garden may be seen by appointment only; The C Lyon himself will be your guide. Lyon’s 650 pieces of outdoor abstract painted steel sculptures are planted in seemingly random fashion along winding paths in a forty-acre forest. Some are mounted on stumps, some are placed in small clearings, others are attached to tress, or hanging from tree limbs. You’ve never seen anything like it.
“I don’t believe in art for art’s sake,” Lyon states. There is motive and emotion behind his sculptural creations. A series of his pieces pay homage to individuals in American history, many of them military, “ordinary people who did extraordinary things.” Lyon tells their stores as he leads the tour: Edward Day Cohota, one of the few Chinese to serve in the Civil War; Private Thompson, a World War II ferry pilot, the only WASP (Women’s Air Service Pilot) to be missing-in-service; Jay Zeamer, a pilot in the South Pacific during World War II who received the USAF Medal of Honor for his exploits; Jonas Salk, who discovered penicillin almost accidentally. Another of Lyon’s honorees is Doug Hegdahl, a Navy sailor who was taken prisoner during the Vietnam War. Hegdahl deceived his captors into considering him “The Incredibly Stupid One” while he secretly memorized the names of 256 of his fellow prisoners. He later was able to testify about camp conditions at the Paris Peace Talks.
Lyon categorized some of his art “Nuclearism,” expressing life under the threat of nuclear holocaust, a concern dating back to his time building bomb shelters in the military. Other “isms” encountered in the C Lyon Sculpture Garden include “Stumperism,” the utilization of stumps as pedestals for the pieces, and “Bottleism” sculptures incorporating glass bottles, which in some cultures are believed to ward off evil spirits. Particularly intriguing is “Arborism,” the placing of sculptures in trees—these are some of Lyon’s most lyrical pieces, creating a sort of Midsummer Night’s Dream atmosphere. Other “Isms” include “Bambooism,” sculptures created with strips and stalks of the bamboo he grows on the property, and, more recently, “Gafferism,” combining blown glass with steel. In 2010, Lyon began studying glass blowing in Corning and he has taken a number of specialized courses in succeeding years. He is currently experimenting with yet another material, probably never before used in sculpture: duct tape! (Could this develop into “Ductism?”)
At one point during the tour, Lyon customarily gathers visitors into a clearing he calls Poets’ Park. Here, almost magically, he extracts a guitar form the branches of a tree and sings “The Ballad of JFK.” President Kennedy is another of his heroes, and Lyon has published twelve editions of The Ballad of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Other poems. Indeed, the prolific sculptor is also a poet and songwriter—he’s written some 500 folk songs, although none have been published yet, he admits. And Lyon painstakingly makes his own guitars, even soaking the wood in saltwater as Stradivarius did in his violin-making. He has studied lutherie, the art of making stringed musical instruments, at several prestigious schools. The ultimate do-it-yourself-er, Lyon has also built his own house, which is located at the Sculpture Garden site. Lyon took courses in framing, plumbing, wiring, and other necessary skills so that he only needed to farm out the foundation work. Conventional enough on the inside, the home boasts a facade painted in distinctive Lyon-esque fashion with offbeat colors and patterned trim.
An Elmira native, Lyon graduated from high school in 1956 and joined the Air Force a year later. After military service, he graduated from Corning Community College and Mansfield University. He married and began his teaching career at Watkins Glen Middle School. He earned a master’s degree from Elmira College in 1971. Lyon is a true world traveler, and has visited many sculpture gardens in this and other countries. He started his own sculpture garden in 1984. His current goal is to complete 700 sculptures, which will make his the largest sculpture garden in the world. All three of Lyon’s children—Cassandra, Roxanne, and Neill—have served in the United States Navy. Neil, along with his wife and young son, will be joining Lyon in Horseheads later this year. Perhaps Neil will come to share his father’s passion for outdoor sculpture. You can meet the extraordinary The C Lyon at his Website, www.theclyon.com, where he gives a video introduction to the Sculpture Garden. Also at the site are a sampling of the sculptures, a number of articles, which have been written about The C Lyon and the Sculpture Garden, and a detailed chronology. Then you can call him and make an appointment—a tour will take one and a half to two unforgettable hours.