Finding a hidden sculpture park on Shelter Island

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Just one of the more than two dozen Ernst Neizvestny works in an off-the-beaten-path sculpture garden.

Sometimes all it takes is a quick meander off the beaten path to discover something truly amazing.

It could be anything: a scenic spot obscured or a hidden trail revealing something either scary or sublime. Walking along Peppermill Lane recently, the happy surprise was wandering into a sculpture park in the back yard of a world-renowned artist.

From a distance, the house and studio of Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny looks ordinary, its gray exterior blending in with the surrounding homes in a characteristic Shelter Island neighborhood.

But look a little closer and it is so much more than that.

Nestled off the quiet street is not only the artist’s home and studio, but a small park displaying about 25 pieces crafted by Mr. Neizvestny. As you walk around to the back of the house, the view is breathtaking. Intricate sculptures ranging in size — some nearly 20 feet high — shape the landscape of the park.

Anna Graham, who has been married to Mr. Neizvestny for 22 years, recently recalled the genesis of the sculpture park. Mr. Neizvestny wanted to find a space to live and work away from his SoHo studio, and what better place to contrast the fast-paced hustle and bustle of New York City than Shelter Island?

“Once he stepped off the ferry on Shelter Island he said, ‘This is going to be my home,’” his wife said.

It not only became his home, but an outlet to project his creativity. “He worked alongside architects to design the house, incorporating his style and things that remind him of Russia,” Ms. Graham said.

The 88-year-old artist, born in Sverdlovsk, Russia, joined the Red Army as a volunteer and was awarded the Order of the Red Star at the close of World War II. He went on to study at the Academy for Fine Arts in Riga, Latvia, and the Surikov Institute of Art in Moscow. At the same time, he studied philosophy at Moscow University. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s his career gained international attention, with Mr. Neizvestny winning many awards and exhibiting his work in museums throughout Europe. In 1977, Mr. Neizvestny moved to New York City.

He has also designed monuments all over the world: in Turkmenistan, a monument to the 1964 Earthquake victims in that Central Asian country; in Latvia, a tribute to victims of the Holocaust; and a “new” Statue of Liberty, honoring the Republic of China in 1988, among many others.

In 1992, Mr. Neizvestny and Ms. Graham got down to work on the house, studio, and what would eventually become the sculpture park. “We were adding new stuff everyday — there was a lot of digging,” his wife said. “What you see now is our joint effort for the past 20 years.”

The result is a mesmerizing view of his sculptures: centaurs, totems depicting mankind, Gigantomachia and Athena from Greek mythology and other homages to myths and legends. Most of these bronze and concrete sculptures resemble the human form, extending the same attention to detail and powerful themes across his different pieces.

Perhaps his most famous cycle of work, more than 20 feet high, is his “Tree of Life,” a theme the artist has been developing since 1956. This huge sculpture, housed in Moscow, embodies elements of the human experience: good versus evil, knowledge, understanding, conflict, religion, science — nearly everything to celebrate life.

Mr. Neizvestny’s studio, which also overlooks the sculpture park, pond, and trees in the background, is where these creations come to life. The rounded, massive room has high ceilings to accommodate even his largest works. From the outside, it looks to be storing some of Mr. Neizvestny’s unfinished masterpieces.

The park has a hushed, secluded feel to it. Looking out at the pond, with towering bronze statues in the foreground, is captivating, an enchanting place to reflect.

“Anyone is welcome to walk through,” Ms. Graham said, “and see for themselves the work of a major artist of the 20th century.”

It’s places like these that emphasize the notion that you can, in fact, find extraordinary things just by taking that turn onto a back road, or abandoning expectations. You never know what you might find.

And you don’t have to go too far. Mr. Neizvestny’s studio, home, and sculpture park is on Peppermill Lane, the second house on the right. Just look for the large cherub’s head to welcome you.

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