Sculpting Tributes

by Derrick Ek (Corning Leader)

Forget about long leisurely days on the golf course. Cornelius Lyon has found other ways to enjoy his retirement, like creating what he believes to be one of the world’s largest sculpture gardens on his forty-acre swath of woods on his property in the hills just north of Horseheads.

            Lyon, a retired Watkins Glen teacher, call himself “The C Lyon.” He began creating abstract sculptures out of scrap metal and other objects back in the early ‘80s as an outlet-not just artistically, but also for his intense interest in history, especially military. The theme of his garden is “Nuclearism,” reflecting his feelings on serving in the Air Force and growing up during the Cold War era under the threat of nuclear annihilation.

            “I found my voice, “ Lyon says. “I hit on my mission in life.”

            He works on his sculpture garden almost every day in the spring, summer and fall. He buys steel from scrap yards. He carves paths through the woods and clears heavy brush a few feet at a time, and hauls the clipping away in his Gator, a six-wheel all-terrain vehicle that sometimes doubles as a tour bus.

            He reads a ton of books and articles on U.S. military history, watches the History Channel religiously and finds some of the most striking, heroic and often tragic stories that haven’t always made their way into the mainstream,

            Then he creates homage’s to the men and women involved.

            One of his sculptures honors Johnnie Johnson, an American soldier in a Korean War prison camp who kept a secret, meticulous list of 496 fellow POWs who died during a two-year ordeal. He jotted down their names and the day they died on scraps of paper, and concealed the list in the walls of the mud hut, all so the families could someday be notified.

            Another sculpture pays homage to Ira Hayes, an Indian-American GI who hoisted the flag at Iwo Jima during World War. But, deeply scarred by the war, he died drunk in a ditch a few years after returning home. Hayes was later immortalized in the Johnny Cash song. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”

            Yet another pays tribute to Captain Mc Vay, who was at the helm of the USS Indianapolis, a battleship sunk by a Japanese submarine during World War11. Mc Vay’s men floated for days, slowly being eaten alive by sharks. Out of more than 1,000 men, only 316 survived. Quint, the grizzled shark hunter, tells the story in the classic horror flick” Jaws.”

            There are hundreds of sculptures like them, hidden throughout the woods. The whole tour takes nearly three hours on foot.

            Lyon uses symbols to tie his sculptures together, things like clocks and trinities. He conceals CD payers so visitors hear the eery sounds of ocean waves and flutes washing through the forest. At one point, there is a circle of tree stumps called Poet’s Part, where Lyon likes to recite poetry and strum his guitar for visitors.

            “They have to listen to me for nine minutes,” Lyon said. “That’s the price of admission.”

            They wander through, a few at time, and sign a guest book when they leave. Lyon gives tours by appointment, then after that, he lets people come back and enjoy the garden by themselves.

            Lately, Lyon has branched out into what he calls, ”arborism,” that is, the technique of suspending his sculptures among the trees. He has also been experimenting with a wide variety of primers, paints and protective finishes. Some are used on boats and cars, and cost as much as $45 an ounce. They sparkle and gleam, and Lyon thinks they could last for hundreds of years.

            “When the sunlight hits some of them, they’re so bright that they’re hard to look at, “ he said.

            The goal is 500 sculptures, which he says should take another couple of years. Once he hits 500, “That’s it. I’m done. I’m going to start making my own guitars,”

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