Cornelius Lyon, Jr., 63, is a Renaissance man with many talents. A retired teacher of remedial reading at Watkins Glen Middle School for more than 20 years, Lyon is also a writer, musician, craftsman, world traveler, athlete, home-builder, and single father who raised three children, one of which now serves in the US Navy.
Also known by his nickname “Pepsi,” or professionally as “The C. Lyon,” hi is curator of his own outdoor steel sculpture museum. He creates and displays his art along a few miles of mossy paths in the 40 acres surrounding his home on Acker Road, in the Town of Veteran.
Begun in 1984, the sculpture garden is one of 142 in the US. Today some 300 pieces grace the garden trails. Lyon strives to complete one new sculpture a week, and at that rate he estimates he’ll have the largest in the world within two years…although he says he needs “at least six more years” to really leave his mark on the world.
Initially Lyon worked with heavy metal “horizontal” sculptures, now rusted, which still dot the garden’s paths. He describes his early work as “stiff.” As his talent developed, his sculpture became more vertical, stretching up and out 6 or 8 feet tall, filled with fluidity and rhythm. Rather than let the sculpture rust, Lyon now preserves his work with auto body paints and enamels to prevent corrosion “hopefully for at least 100 years.”
His art is full of patriotism and symbolism – many groups of three (trinities), clocks, American flags, religious symbols mixed with military and other historical references. He traces his urge to communicate through art to a pivotal moment in his late teens/early twenties when he served in the US Air Force. That’s when he got “The Flash” – a moment of epiphany.
“I was a 19 year old illiterate kid in the Air Force, stationed in the Orient. I was in a valley with a beautiful Korean rice field when I became flashed. I’d seen such awesome poverty and suffering…I’d also done something stupid when I was young that I was ashamed of, and this is my second chance at life.”
He describes his art as “nuclearism” – seeking to express his perception of life under the doomsday fear of nuclear annihilation, a pre-Vietnam era view he gained by building bomb shelters while in the military. He also seeks to honor those who should not be forgotten.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, he decided to build a home on Acker Road, but didn’t how to do it al himself. Eager to learn, he took a series of evening classes at SCT BOCES in welding, plumbing, electrical/mechanical and carpentry.
“I don’t know what I would have done without BOCES,” he said. “I did all my own framing, electricity, plumbing, even the kitchen cabinets – and it all passed inspection.” After building his home, he blazed trails around it into the surrounding forest. He continued to experiment with welding to create abstract sculpture, and realized that he’d finally “found his voice.”
All the while, he devoured books on history and religion, coming up with “nuclear” topics and people to pay homage to. His gallery includes titles such as “Nuclear Compassion,” “Nuclear Forceps,” “Nuclear Shovel,” and “Homage to JFK,” “Homage to Vietnam Vets,” and Homage to Dr. Jonas Salk.”
New fabricated steel is hard to find, so he puts a lot of miles in his old pickup in search of it. He buys metal and paints at his own expanse. Lyon has never sold a piece and has never been paid for his work.
For a retiree, Lyon is a very busy man. He jogs, reads, writes, builds guitars, takes care of an adopted stray cat, updates his own web site, and, every Sunday, attends worship serve with monks at Mount Savior Monastery.
He’s also in the process of pulling some of his old sculpture from the garden trails, sandblasting the rust off them, then painting them with bright car paint colors that will withstand years of outdoor elements without rusting. “I’m not the kind of person who can just sit on the beach and do nothing, “ he said.
Lyon hosts free sculpture garden tours by appointment year round. Contact him at 757—594-2807.