Unexpected Landscapes

P yramid power Shaun Higgins can hear Harry T. Wilks whispering in his ear. Wilks died in 2014, but he’s still talking to Higgins, who is director of park operations at Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum in Hamilton.  What is Pyramid Hill, and who is Harry Wilks? It’s hard to know where to start. […]

Worth the trip to Hamilton’s Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park

Abracadabra, by Alexander Liberman.

By Paula Johnson

Pyramid power
Shaun Higgins can hear Harry T. Wilks whispering in his ear. Wilks died in 2014, but he’s still talking to Higgins, who is director of park operations at Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum in Hamilton.  What is Pyramid Hill, and who is Harry Wilks? It’s hard to know where to start. The park is a 300-plus acre sculpture park with more than 60 monumental outdoor sculptures displayed in a landscape of rolling hills, meadows, lakes, and hiking trails. According to its website, the park also “features an indoor Ancient Sculpture Museum that displays Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Syrian, and Egyptian sculptures dating to 1550 B.C.” Its mission is bringing people to art in nature with a “vision to inspire and educate, and to be a catalyst for dialog, collaboration, and contemplation.” That’s only a thumbnail sketch of Pyramid Hill. There’s so much more to it than that, . and its all the brainchild of the extraordinary Harry T. Wilks.

Giant glowing rabbits
I first heard about Pyramid Hill after seeing an online blurb announcing a special visiting exhibition of giant inflatable light-up rabbits. I knew nothing about the place and arrived at dusk as the glowing rabbits were illuminated. It was absolute magic as I strolled around the monumental bunnies, but I quickly realized the scope of what I wasn’t seeing (basically everything).

My next trip soon after was to attend the inaugural Red, White, & Carts Tour, a ridiculously fun adventure lead by Higgins. Attendees sipped wine, drove golf carts (known here as “art carts”) to view select sculpture pieces, and were regaled with tales of the art and artists by Higgins. I had only scratched the surface. I’ve returned twice more, and still haven’t made a complete inventory of Pyramid Hill.

Why the name Pyramid Hill? It refers to the glass pyramid that crowns the underground home of the aforementioned Wilks. I asked Higgins to tell me his story to understand the genesis of Pyramid Hill, and its subsequent growth. “How to describe Harry Wilks? Harry was truly a man of vision. He thought of everything—the ponds, having electric in all these open fields—I mean, who thinks of that? The electricity allows us to do our Holiday Lights on the Hill annual drive-through light display.” But did Wilks start out to have a giant sculpture park when he got the property?

“Actually, no. He started out in the early ‘80s with about 40 acres or so. Harry was in the second half of his life. He’d been a local attorney and had some investments that paid off very well. He was a well-known figure in the Hamilton area, supporting generously things he loved, particularly education and the opera. He wanted to retire to the country, put a pond or two in, and build a house on the hill. But that’s not exactly what happened,” laughs Higgins.

The Hobbit-esque house, topped by the Louvre-style glass pyramid basically happened because Wilks loved nature as much as he loved art. “He saw a deer walking on the ridge of where the house was to be built, and he decided the house should be built into the hill—instead of on it—to not disturb nature. The glass pyramid was so the house didn’t feel like a cave. Harry was an avid golfer, so the tee for one of the three holes of his course is on the roof of the house,” explains Higgins. (Visitor’s note: The house is undergoing renovation and will be available in the future as a venue for functions.)

“As things progressed, Harry added a tennis court where our pavilion is now, and he would frequently have friends over to play golf,” Higgins adds. Those friends tried to persuade him to sell them land so they could build there too. That’s when Harry began to realize he needed to preserve the land to keep it from becoming a subdivision. He got the idea of creating a sculpture park after extensive travel abroad, where he routinely bought art pieces home from his journeys.”

“Harry started buying up land and formed a board of directors, and that’s how Pyramid Hill began, Higgins continues. “The very first purchased and installed sculpture was by Harold Betz, called “Phase 1,” and was located on the circular driveway at the house. He wanted to get this going quickly; Harry knew he was in the second phase of his life, a time when most people retire and take it easy. So he decided to focus on artists who were in mid-career, those who were already moderately established, but whose work could still be affordable. That was Harry’s philosophy as he looked to add artists and pieces fairly rapidly. He did a lot of commissioning as well, inviting artists to do site-specific pieces. A great example of this is the dramatic monumental John Henry steel sculpture entitled “Passage You Drive Under to Enter the Park,” Higgins explains. Its become the park’s easily recognizable signature piece and is printed on T-shirts, postcards, and tote bags.

Look, listen, and drive a cart
There are a couple of things that make Pyramid Hill a unique experience, notwithstanding the fact that it’s primarily an outdoor museum. The way you experience each sculpture is by being told about it by the artists themselves. By downloading OtoCast (an app that features tours through museums all over the U.S.) onto your phone, it’s possible to listen to the artists talk in their own words about their piece and their process. It’s really moving and enriching to hear directly from the artists and get some context around the work.

Higgins also told me about Pyramid Hill’s association with a company called Museum Hack, which looks at museum tours a completely different way to really add some fun to the experience.  “We thought about how we want to present ourselves and we really want to be the opposite of stuffy–and maybe a little irreverent. That’s how we came up with the wine and “art cart” event you attended.” I asked when the next one would be, and he told me plans are in the works for more “art cart” tours since the first was such a success. But you don’t have to wait for a formal “art cart” event. Visitors can rent a cart and tool around the property at their leisure, listening to the artists as they go. It’s also worth pointing out that for those with mobility issues, the carts provide access in a way that doesn’t limit their experience.

Despite the focus on art in nature, one of the most intriguing places at Pyramid Hill is actually not outdoors—it’s the indoor museum filled with ancient artifacts that Wilks collected over the years through auctions from houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. He was deeply concerned with the authenticity and provenance of what he was buying. “And keep in mind, these were the decorations Harry and his family lived with in his house,” Higgins reminds me.

The museum itself is in a low slung structure built around a courtyard and, as a viewing space for these pieces, the effect is extraordinary. Everything is naturally lit and at eye level, resulting in a truly intimate interaction with each object. You can get extremely up close and personal with one of the museum’s premier pieces, an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus.

The museum has a space for changing exhibitions and will open an outstanding photography show from Oct. 1 – Nov. 30 featuring the work of Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Irving Penn. The Museum Gallery Series also hosts exhibitions by local and regional as well as nationally known artists.

Zombies and BBQ?
Obviously, Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum is about art. But it’s also about zombies. And hummingbirds. And The Butler Philharmonic. Let me explain, starting with the zombies, or more accurately, the annual Zombie Ball, where dressing as a zombie and dancing in a zombie-like manner (or actually any manner) is encouraged. There’s an artist on hand to create zombie make-up for party-goers, and a great DJ. There’s a hayride, food, a special cocktail, and for a really special time, you can park down at the bottom of the long winding driveway at the entrance and ride up to the pavilion in the back of a real hearse which is donated and driven by the staff of a local funeral home.

Then there’s the Blues, Brews, & BBQ summer festival which showcases several blues bands and lots of BBQ. The Butler Philharmonic does a free summer concert as well. How about a Meteor Shower Party? Or a Fishing Derby at one of the park’s many ponds?

The hummingbirds are part of the park’s Horticultural Series, in cooperation with the Ohio State University Agricultural Extension, with programming on pollinators, native plants, pest management, and trees. Pyramid Hill also offers a wide range of programming for children, including a series of week-long full day summer camps.

This year’s Holiday Lights on the Hill is rising to a whole new level with the involvement of Brave Berlin, the creative force behind Cincinnati’s BLINK and Lumenocity. They’ve created a custom light projection display and will show a holiday themed artistic video on three sides of the pavilion. There really is something here for all ages and interests in every season of the year!

You can also rent Pyramid Hill. “The stunning landscape and unique architecture offer ideal backdrops for weddings, corporate retreats, meetings, family reunions, and celebration of life ceremonies. Since we are a 501(c)(3) non-profit, we don’t get any government subsidies, and this is a way we can generate income and be self-supporting,” Higgins points out.

I asked Higgins about his goals for the park and where he sees Pyramid Hill in 5 or 10 years. “We are stewards of Harry Wilks’s vision and our job is to carry it on to the next generation. I want us to get to the point where we have enough events and activities that we become one of the top 3 or so things to do inButler county—that we become that place you take out of town visitors to—right up there with King’s Island or a Red’s game. I want to get to the point where people are always thinking, ‘What’s going on now at Pyramid Hill?’ I want us to be first on everyone’s mind.”

Finally, I asked Higgins what Wilks might say about how much has happened in the years since his passing. “I think he’d say, ‘It’s about time!’” Higgins laughs, “Sometimes I hear him giving me a hard time. He was always about the next thing, the next thing, hurry up, why aren’t we there yet? But I think he’d be pleased with how we’ve grown. I think he’d say, ‘Well done!’”

I couldn’t agree more. If you haven’t visited Pyramid Hill yet, I will use Wilks’ (oops) words: Hurry up! Why aren’t you there yet?

The Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum is in Hamilton at 1763 Hamilton Cleves Rd. The park hours now through October are M-F 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., weekends 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Ancient Sculpture Museum is open noon to 5 p.m. daily. Admission for adults is $8, children 6 to 12 is $3, 5 or under free. For more information on special events, cart rental, and garden membership, visit www.pyramidhill.org or call 513.868.1234.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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