Dorothy Riester reflects on her longtime home, Stone Quarry Hill Art Park
Sculptor Dorothy Riester sits perched on the edge of her wicker chair on the porch of the artist’s lodge at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park. The view outside the window is breathtaking. Trees line the edge of the scene; they are curtains to a stage of green, the stars in a simple yet magnificent display of yellow flags.
As the story of Riester’s life and the Art Park unfold in an intertwined web of history, Dorothy’s eyes emit the sort of energy reserved for moments of sheer love and devotion. Sure, her hair is graying, her face is filled with smile lines and her voice cracks from time to time; she is 94 years old, after all. But one thing is explicitly clear: Art is Riester’s passion, and that youthful spark isn’t going anywhere.
Twenty years ago, Riester and her late husband Bob founded Stone Quarry Hill Art Park. What started out as an affection for the outdoors and a love of art evolved over the years into what Stone Quarry Hill Art Park is today: a sculpture space spread across 104 acres of land and over four miles of hiking trails. Riester first set her eyes on Stone Quarry Hill Road in 1953 when the recently wed couple ventured into the hillsides of Cazenovia.
“We moved to Syracuse because Bob came to work for Carrier,” she says. Riester and her husband were originally from Pennsylvania. “The first thing we did was buy an old, old townhouse down on North Townsend Street. But Bob and I really loved the country. So every Sunday we would have a picnic, ride out into the beautiful hills around Syracuse.” As Riester tells her story, her eyes dazzle at the memories.
“And nothing was just right until one Sunday we saw ‘Cazenovia—25 acres, scenic.’ So we got the directions and came out. Stone Quarry Road at that time was just a dirt road. And it was 25 acres, just the hill. The way to get up to it was just a very steep, rutted, muddy lane that went up the hill. But when we got up there, there was a little row of hickory trees, and underneath it the grass was matted down, and we could see that people came there. We found out later this hill was called Picnic Hill, and it was a favorite place to come for generations.”
It wasn’t long before Riester and her husband bought the land. “And after we bought it, the word got out, ‘Somebody bought our hill and we can’t come!’ And we said, ‘Of course you can, keep coming!’ So it started out that way.”
Eventually, the Riesters moved from their home in the city to the Stone Quarry Hill property, off Route 20 about a mile east of Cazenovia. “When Bob and I moved here, it was a summer place first. We camped the first summer, so I got the feel of the land, and then I designed the house. The house is very unique; there isn’t anything like it anywhere in the world. It’s web-shaped,” Riester explains. “It’s twice as high in the front as it is in the back. I designed it entirely by what we saw and what we felt when we were up on that hill. At that time—see those trees right ahead?” Dorothy pauses to point out the window at the trees lining the landscape.
“There weren’t any trees there because the man who owned this was in the timber business, and that was all clear. So we had a clear view all the way to Syra cuse and Onondaga Lake. We just saw all around, except on the one big sugar maple grove on the west. It was very windy, but I designed the house and kept it over near the woods so that the wind would run and go over the house. Bob and I did much of the building, and then we put in gardens, and trails.”
The Riesters expanded the property by buying the land around the hill as it came onto the market, expanding their countryside dream. “As we got more and more land, I put a conservation easement on it, so it would always stay this way,” Riester assures. With the easement, the lay of the land is strictly controlled. “There can be no other building on this land except as needed by the Art Park. And there can be no trees cut, no timbering, except for the health of the forest and safety of the trails, and that these fields should always be kept as they are.”
Hot Rod Lincoln
With the land kept intact—no huge studio spaces, no giant gift shops, no overbearing concrete parking lots—it’s no surprise that it is a source of inspiration for Riester, as well as the many artists in residence at the Art Park over the years.
Riester completed many of her biggest art commissions during the time she and her husband lived at the house on Stone Quarry Hill. Riester’s primary teacher and guiding force was the nature surrounding her—after all, one of her major commissions is entitled “Earth, Air and Water.” “Each one has a different story,” Riester says fondly of her pieces, sounding like a mother talking about her children.
Perhaps the most famous of her children is Lincoln. “Oh, that’s an interesting story,” she says. “I was commissioned to do an Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Bank, and I thought, ‘How can you do Lincoln?’ Because the way you see him sitting in the Lincoln Memorial, he’s always an old man with a beard. I said I can’t do that at all.”
Here is where Riester’s love and understanding of nature came into play. “I think that Lincoln now has become a folk figure, and I see him striding across the countryside. And he’s become not an old man sitting in a chair, but he’s a symbol of this freshness. So I did studies of what I thought it should be, and the board all came in and they were expecting the traditional Lincoln.” Dorothy pauses for a moment. “And then deep silence. And then the chairman of the board, he came in and said, ‘That’s it!’ And so the others went, ‘That’s it!’” So Riester’s Lincoln came into the world, all 15 feet of him, in 1967, and resided at the former Lincoln National Bank & Trust Co. of Central New York, at the current Chase Bank location in downtown Syracuse. This is where Lincoln the sculpture’s whereabouts become fuzzy. At some point, it appeared at Awful Al’s Cigar and Whiskey Bar, just around the corner on Clinton Street.
“Well that’s where Lincoln was,” Riester says. “I finally found that out, and I went with my nephew. I thought, ‘I don’t wanna go in there by myself,’ and as you went in in all that smoke, there was Lincoln! And the men sitting around on the couches smoking their cigars.”
But then Lincoln vanished. “I don’t know where it was. And I tried and tried, and the people who owned it, they weren’t there anymore.” At this point, search parties were sent out, in a matter of speaking. The Art Park site manager at the time placed a newspaper ad. “It said, ‘Where is Lincoln?
Where is Lincoln?’ And he did that for quite a while, and finally, this man called from Baldwinsville, who had an antique shop, and he had bought it. And he was going to take it to New York City to sell it. And my niece was visiting me, and we were up standing outside my studio, and this truck came up, and there was Lincoln in it.”
When Lincoln appeared over the horizon, she knew he belonged at the park. An anonymous person purchased him back for less than $10,000, the family had him restored and he is back in Cazenovia.
Over the years, Riester has worked in every medium from ceramics to wood to barbed wire, making constructions ranging from a half-foot high bright red wooden sculpture to the 15-foot wrought-iron Lincoln.
In recent years, a hand tremor has made it difficult for her to work. At the end of this summer, Riester plans to move from the artist’s lodge at the Art Park to The Nottingham, a senior living community in DeWitt. But she has no plans to stop being guided by nature and that spark in her eye.
“In The Nottingham, outside of every room there’s a little platform and everybody has little stuffed dolls and, you know, wreaths,” Riester says with a grin. “I’m going to put a real wild sculpture there!” Riester’s eyes sparkle as she laughs. “I’m going to have a real good time.”
So what will happen to the Art Park when Riester moves off the land? “It has the easement on it, and I now have endowed it. It’s called the Robert and Dorothy Riester Endowment for Building and Grounds at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park,” she explains. “And so there’ll always be a little money— there won’t be a lot, but there’ll be a little—so it can be kept up.” The Art Park also takes in revenue from members, with a starting membership of $35 a year, as well as donations and grants. “That’s how it keeps going. The people have been very supportive. And as I see it, every year the park will become more valuable.”
Art Park will continue as a space of protected land, where artists can
be inspired and inspiring, even after Riester leaves to shock The
Nottingham with her wild table art. “I think the park’s meaning more and
more, and it’s meaning more particularly to sculptors,” she says.
“Because, you know, painters can always find a place to hang their
paintings, but sculptors have a very, very difficult time. And I think
that people are becoming more aware of the arts now.”
Stone Quarry Hill Art Park holds a number of special events, classes and exhibits throughout the year. To find out more, visit stonequarryhillartpark.org or call 655-3196.