“There isn’t any place comparable in this part of the world,” says curator Tom Cugliani of Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, where he has launched an ambitious sculpture exhibition throughout the woodlands and gardens of the former provisioning plantation.

Mr. Cugliani, who has been exploring the property since he was a child on Shelter Island, has expertly installed works by 25 accomplished local artists in this environment, some of which address the former slaveholding plantation’s past, and others of which place art that you might otherwise find in a museum in a natural context among the woodlands.

While the project was conceived with a minimalist budget, the end result is a masterful installation accompanied by an app that provides a self-guided tour of the mysteries that unfold as you journey through a portion of the 236-acre property.

“This exhibition is equally about the landscape and how it has undergone transformation,” said Mr. Cugliani as he led a press tour through the just-installed exhibition ahead of its June 22 opening.

Clockwise From Top Left: Monica Banks’ “Dostoesvky;” Jeremy Dennis’s “The Growing Tree; Alan Shields’ “Bead Piece; Kate Lawless’s “Taking Pause;”  Bastienne Schmidt’s “Settlement of Shapes.” At top: One of Donna Green’s “Ancestors.”

Our tour took about 90 minutes, meandering from a gnarled tree festooned with “Settlement of Shapes,” a playful piece by Bastienne Schmidt  and a peacock house adorned with “The Growing Tree,” a print on aluminum by Shinnecock photographer Jeremy Dennis. It’s a photo of a stark tree with an osprey’s nest in a wild landscape, juxtaposed to highlight the absurdity of an ornamental structure to house exotic birds in a previously native environment.

The tour then dives into the natural world, meandering through the old growth forest, where sculptural objects have been lovingly placed within the landscape. On the edge of a wetland, island legend Alan Shield’s “Bead Piece” adorn the trees and is installed among the ferns, its features changing as the light moves throughout the day.

“Every time I’ve been here, it’s been different,” said Mr. Cugliani, who added that Mr. Shield’s playfulness and experimentation with “chance operations, randomness and unconventional use of materials” helped inform many of the artists in the exhibition. 

In the midst of the woods, tourgoers happen upon a clearing, a space that seems both sacred and like a living space, filled with hand-thrown ceramic pieces, “Ancestors,” by artist Donna Green. Rest a while there on Mary Heilmann’s iconic chairs, while listening to an audio sculpture, “Keeping Time (Shift in the Wind)” by Almond Zigmund echoing from a tree stand. 

It’s an isolated track of her father, jazz drummer Eliot Zigmund, providing counterpoint to the woodpeckers, insects and songbirds in the forest.

“Nature is an artist,” busy at work,” said Mr. Cugliani.

In these woods, you’ll happen upon Peter Dayton’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie in the Woods,” an arrangement of colorful elements that fall almost like pickup sticks into the landscape, inspired by the Fluxus movement. 

Don’t be scared by Mary Ann Moy’s giant bronzes in repose in the woods. Maybe you should be scared of Monica Banks’ “Dostoevsky,” a copper wire, ceramic and glass serpent ready to strike from the trees, representing “a society that incorporates slavery for economic means, a serpent under the fabric of society,” said Mr. Cugliani as the group headed out of the wilderness and back into the formal gardens, where a trio of installations by Scott Bluedorn and Sheila Batiste, Island Labyrinth, examines Sylvester Manor’s history in the triangulated trade set up in the 17th Century by Nathaniel Sylvester and his brothers between Great Britain, Barbados and Shelter Island. 

Here, two more works, by Faith Evans and Kate Lawless, directly explore the lives of the people who were enslaved at the manor, and their descendants. Ms. Evans’ drawings, “Woman in the Chair,” on paper under glass under a gazebo, tell of the life of Julia A. Havens, a free person of color who worked at the Manor. 

In Ms. Lawless’s installation, “Taking Pause,” rope is arranged in spirals around a tree at the edge of the grounds, like an extension of the growth rings in the tree itself, embroidered with the names of the people who’d been enslaved at the manor.

Mr. Cugliani said he hopes this will be the first of many annual installations at Sylvester Manor.

“My objective is to integrate people back into the landscape,” he said. 

The exhibition will be on view through Sept. 8. The trails and grounds are open to the public from sunrise to sunset. More guided tours will be held throughout the summer, including one on Sunday, July 14 at 10:30 a.m. Here are more details.

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Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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