As the sun peeked above the horizon to spread its golden glow, it revealed cartoon-esque clouds hovering in the low-hanging mist. The cheery blue puffs suspended atop ladderlike stilts suggested heaven was attainable. However, the signage reminded visitors to neither touch nor climb it, so I satisfied myself with a moment of imagination.
Olaf Breuning’s 2014 work “Clouds” is often the first thing visitors see when they drive up to Art Omi (pronounced “oh my”), a 120-acre modern sculpture and architecture park in Ghent, N.Y., perched near the northern end of the Hudson Valley. With its open-air layout and ample space for social distancing, it is the perfect attraction in a pandemic-rattled world. For those missing the introspection and inspiration that comes from appreciating art, the entire 315-mile-long valley, running from Westchester County just north of New York City to past Albany, is a worthy getaway. Since the early 19th century, the region has drawn artists — from renowned landscape artist Thomas Cole to realist painter Edward Hopper — and is now dotted with an awe-inspiring collection of alfresco art parks.
A must-see whimsical wonderland, Art Omi is so much more than its trademark cloud installation. Everywhere I looked, a piece commanded my attention. Towering over the rolling landscape punctuated by copses, Andrea Bowers’s giant neon sign “Somos 11 Millones/We Are 11 Million” highlights the number of immigrants who reside illegally in the United States, while serving as a rallying cry for the “dreamers.” More surrealist, but no less engaging, is Nari Ward’s cheekily titled “Scapegoat.” Spanning 40 feet, it’s a riff on a hobbyhorse, but with a horned goat’s head. According to the information provided, it’s a “satire of masculinity and the monument.” Like many of the pieces on display, it’s also Instagram bait. I dutifully took and posted a photo.
Some works at Art Omi begged for more in-depth interaction. At one point, I wandered through Will Ryman’s “Pac-Lab,” a Pac-Man-style human-size maze rendered in giant blocks of black, white, yellow, blue and red. I sat for a moment to contemplate the sounds of peeping frogs inside Rob Fischer’s 2016 installation “Omi Pond House,” a floating home. Though I spent a couple hours hiking across the property, I left feeling I had only just begun to scratch Art Omi’s surface.
Another must-visit was Storm King Art Center, due south in New Windsor. Opened to the public in 1960, the now-500-acre property showcases mostly large-scale modern sculptures. Many pieces are set against the backdrop of Schunemunk Mountain to the southwest, which looks photo-worthy year-round, whether frosted white in winter or ablaze with fall foliage. The day I visited, the mountain was alive with spring greens, the sky was endless blue, the sun an intense canary yellow.
Some of the most impressive works happened to be the largest. Mark di Suvero’s “She,” a sort of colossal cubist scale, practically invited me to sit in its metal swing to survey the park unfolding around me. Close by, the artist’s “Pyramidian” evokes a gigantic stick figure, its arms thrown wide open as if to embrace the world.
When I stood in the right spot, Alexander Calder’s arching “Black Flag” perfectly framed his other work, “Tripes,” a softer-edged surrealistic jumble of amoeba-like appendages. Leaning at a seemingly unsustainable angle, Menashe Kadishman’s “Suspended” is a clever optical illusion that made me feel it was paused in time, but it could come crashing down if I hit the proverbial play button. Though I didn’t have the luxury, I could have easily spent a day at Storm King, and I was already planning another visit as I drove away.
Later in my trip, I stopped by Opus 40 Sculpture Park and Museum in Saugerties, just outside Woodstock. The vision and creation of a single man, self-taught sculptor Harvey Fite, the 6½-acre walkable earthworks sculpture is composed of steps, ramps, terraces, trenches, pools, statues and a 13-foot-high, nine-ton monolith. Forged almost entirely from rock obtained from a bluestone quarry on the 50-acre property, it was intended to be a “series of statements on the brotherhood of man and the assimilation of the races,” according to Jonathan Richards’s booklet “Harvey Fite’s Opus 40.”
Fite called it Opus 40 thinking it would take him that many years to finish. He bought the property in the spring of 1938 and began work the following spring, originally intending to create a series of sculptures and display them in the open. After spending time with an archaeological team in Copán, Honduras, restoring Mayan ruins, he was inspired to use dry key construction, which requires no mortar or cement, to build pedestals for his figurative sculptures. After recognizing his works were being dwarfed by their surroundings, he came to realize the environment he was creating was the true sculpture. At no point did Fite draw up any plans. He just went where whim and the bluestone took him, working entirely by hand. Though he was killed in 1976 after accidentally falling into his life’s work, Opus 40 was essentially finished.
As I looked down the property’s main lawn, Opus 40 framed the majestic Overlook Mountain to the west, its peak wreathed in fog. I traversed the work, from the monolith at its center to below ground level, where the temperature became markedly chillier (according to on-site literature, it can be up to 15 degrees cooler), and I spotted fossils in the stone walls. The property remains imbued with Fite’s creativity and drive, which seemed to transfer to me as I walked around. If my schedule had allowed, I would have spent a whole day there writing at one of the picnic tables on the lawn.
The morning I made my way to my last stop, Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, it was cloaked in now-familiar fog. It mingled with the trees as I drove up the hill to the estate’s centerpiece: an eccentric-for-its-time 19th-century Persian-inspired mansion once home to Frederic Church. One of the foremost artists in the Hudson River School of landscape painting, he was known for his highly detailed, epic canvasses favoring sunsets and waterfalls.
Because of the pandemic, the house was closed, but the trails wending their way across the 250-acre estate remained open. Normally, the sprawling property affords breathtaking views of the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains, a veritable Church painting come to life. Instead, I was treated to just the ghostly haze, which dampened sounds to create a meditative atmosphere. Benches formed from twisted branches, based on a design by Church, looked off into the vaporous vista. I paused and enjoyed another moment of imagination.
Martell is a writer based in D.C. Find him on Instagram: @nevinmartell
Where to stay
1405 County Rte. 22, Ghent
Kid- and dog-friendly, the sprawling 120-acre modern sculpture and architecture park showcases an eye-catchingly diverse array of works that appeal to both serious art lovers and families looking for more erudite entertainment. Open daily, dawn to dusk. Advance registration required on weekends. Suggested donation $10 per person.
Storm King Art Center
1 Museum Rd., New Windsor
Just as beguiling for parents as for their children, Hudson Valley’s original art park wows at every turn with its large-scale works and breathtaking views spread across 500 acres. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Monday; closed Tuesday. Advance tickets required and released in biweekly blocks. Tickets priced per car; one visitor $20 and prices go up to $84 for a car with six visitors.
Olana State Historic Site
5720 State Rte. 9G, Hudson
Walk the winding trails across Frederic Church’s 250-acre estate while stopping to check out the panoramic vistas that inspired the 18th-century landscape painter, along with rotating outdoor installations. Park open daily 8 a.m. to sunset. Free; walking tours $15 per person.
50 Fite Rd., Saugerties
Harvey Fite’s large-scale, walkable earthwork sculpture handcrafted with local bluestone is imbued with a mythic sensibility that will inspire awe in visitors of all ages. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Advance tickets preferred. General admission $11, $9 seniors and students, free for children under the age of 4.