Photos and text by MEREDITH FORREST KULWICKI
Published November 13, 2023
Editor’s note: Here’s another installment of “Out of Office,” a series highlighting UB faculty and staff who pursue interesting hobbies, community engagement and other endeavors outside of their day jobs.
Nested in the hills 50 miles south of Buffalo in the rural town of East Otto, Griffis Sculpture Park brings art and nature together.
“The moment you step on the park property, it’s like you’ve entered another world,” says Doug Sitler, associate director of national and international media relations in the Office of University Communications and caretaker of Griffis Sculpture Park.
Nearly 250 sculptures can be found in the 450-acre park; they appear in fields, forests and even ponds. Much of the work is that of the park’s founder, artist Larry Griffis Jr., but some artwork, especially in recent years, is from other nationally and internationally recognized artists. The park is believed to be the largest sculpture park in the U.S.; it hosts about 40,000 visitors a year.
“I like being here because it’s so tranquil, especially after a long work week” says Sitler. “It’s a blissful place that lets people escape. We are grateful that the park is a major part of my family’s life.”
Sitler first experienced the sculpture park in 1991, when he attended a concert by the band 10,000 Maniacs. He was a regular visitor to the park before signing on as a volunteer 19 years ago.
Sitler and his wife, Anna, volunteer with the Ashville Hollow Foundation, which owns and operates the park. Most of their weekends are spent at the park, staying in the house and taking care of the routine tasks needed to keep the park open and accessible to the public.
The routine of caretaking
As caretaker, Sitler does everything from maintaining the land and sculptures to planning and producing the large-scale events hosted on the property. He also handles the park’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in August, Sitler sets off from the house with pruning clippers in hand. Meandering along the various walking paths, he clears low-hanging tree branches. Later that evening, he welcomes a dozen people attending the monthly drum circle. After dinner with family and friends, he and others set up for an event at the amphitheater the next day.
Through all this, there is ample opportunity to interact with visitors and Sitler says this may be one of his favorite aspects of his role.
“I enjoy telling them about the park’s history and about the sculptures,” Sitler says. “Art can be one of those things that can be greatly misunderstood. It’s kind of like wine, where some people feel that they have to be a wine connoisseur to enjoy it. Which is completely not true. In fact, that’s what is neat about Larry Griffis’ sculpture park. He made it for the common man. He said the sculptures are what you want them to be.”
Sitler’s favorite pieces include the iconic, 25-foot-tall steel castle tower, which he says is playful and exploratory, with different levels and viewpoints. He likes to share the back story of how the castle was the result of a project in the late 1970s in which Griffis worked with disadvantaged Buffalo teenagers to teach them welding. It took them nearly a year and a half to complete the tower.
“Not only is it a fun sculpture, but it’s very symbolic of who Larry Griffis was,” Sitler says. “It’s a wonderful example of how art can mesh with life and society.”
Focus on family
Focusing visits on the warmer months, Sitler and his family spend most of their summer and fall weekends at the park. They have made the green, loft-style house on the property a second home for their extended family. The home was where Griffis lived until his passing in 2000.
“A lot about being out here is family driven,” says Sitler. “We love being here as a family. Our kids and grandkids get very involved in helping keep the park clean and safe. It’s fun seeing our kids grow up here and embrace the Zen nature of this place. It’s really special because these moments don’t last forever.”
Sitler says his grandchildren have learned some of life’s lesson at the park. They’ve helped pick up trash throughout the park since they were 4 years old. “They now understand that littering is unacceptable and get angry when they see that visitors have thrown garbage on the ground,” he says.
The park also holds a special place for Doug and Anna: They met at a park event 15 years ago, and exchanged wedding vows inside the house there a year later.
“This park is a Western New York gem,” Sitler notes. “It’s one of those secret spots, and you want to see it go on forever.”