I’ve always known him as Pepsi, a childhood nickname. Some people call him Cornelius. His professional name is Ross. One thing you can’t call Cornelius Lyon Jr., though, is a quitter.
Since he began working as a metal sculptor in 1984, Ross has created 300 sculptures on 30 acres of land surrounding his home on Acker Road in the town of Veteran, just east of Millport.
All the sculptures are in an outdoor sculpture garden that wraps around his house. The sculpture garden and house are included in the 40 acres of woods, wildflowers and meandering paths that Ross calls home. He gives tours of his garden at 1 p.m. on Saturdays through Sept. 1.
Ross became interested in abstract work after a trip to the Storm King outdoor sculpture garden in Newburgh, N.Y. “I had to visit five continents and spend the last 16 years searching for my voice,” said Ross, a 62 year-old retired teacher in Watkins Glen school district. You’ve heard of impressionism. Ross has created “nuclearism.” He is eager to explain why.
“Every artist wants to have his or her own theme. I spent four years in the Air Force, and my life during the Cold War, “ he said. Ross became interested in art during an annual trip to France. There, he visited a museum and decided that he would someday have a place filled with his own work.
“I’d be spending Saturdays at home with my kids and started doing this, “ Ross said. It kept me at home.”
Ross started by creating horizontal metal sculptures. He quickly became bored with them, although they are part of his garden.
He wanted more.
He took welding courses and even an auto-refinishing course at Corning Community College. “I told the teacher I didn’t care about working on cares and he said he did care why I was there, as long as I wanted to learn.” Ross said.
That course ended up giving Ross’ art the boost it needed. To start, he takes the metal and sandblasts it bare. After some twisting and turning, he comes up with a theme for the piece. In the first few years, the metal would rust and fade after sitting out doors in the sun. It needed something that would fight off the elements. Ross began to experiment with different paints. It’s all part of the process, he said.
Now he uses fluorescent colors, car striping, fiberglass, lettering and polyurethane’s. The key, though, to making long-lasting pieces that Mother Nature can’t damages is a couple of coats of polyurethane, topped with iron, a strong protective paint used for cars and boats.
“See that piece”? Ross asked as he pointed to a work he calls “Uncontaminated.” “That one has been under 4 feet of snow and it still looks new. Nature hasn’t touched I yet.
A walk through Ross’ garden of sculptures is peaceful. A winding, sometimes soft, mossy path surrounded by trees, birds, and other critters, takes visitors on a tour of the work he has done over the years.
There’s “Homage to Sacagawea,” and even “Homage to Aborigines,” which is decorated with “Wombats, next 5 km” stickers from Australia, where Ross recently vacationed. His work is filled with symbolism: clocks, marking 8:15 (The time Hiroshima was bombed) and 10:59 (when Nagasaki was bombed); missiles, and the American flag.
“The pieces are made in America,” Ross said. “And every Sunday I thank God I’m from this country.”
Much of Ross’ work is dedicated to soldiers, particularly those in the Vietnam War. His work-in-progress is an “Homage to Paul Tibbets.” Col. Tibbets dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. “It was the single most destructive thing that has ever happened.” Ross said. He knows that Tibbets wasn’t a very popular man, but that doesn’t stop Ross from moving forward with his design.
“I’m like a fashion designer trying to create something that’s never been done or seen before,” said Ross, who has three grown children, all in the U.S. Navy.
Ross stops at “Poet’s Corner” an intermission area with log stumps as stools positioned in a circle. That’s where visitors stop and Ross plays his guitar and recites poetry.
He talks about his goals as an artist. Despite repeated attempts, Ross has never gotten his work into a New York City are gallery. Only one piece of work has ever left his garden of sculptures. That one “Nuclear Cardinal,” was placed in Fireman’s Park in Elmira Heights at the intersection of College and Oakwood avenues.
With 300 pieces, Ross believes he has the largest sculpture garden by a single artist in the northeastern Untied States. His goal is to complete 157 more sculptures, giving him the largest “garden” in the world.
“I want to spend the rest of my life creating something that’s never been done before.”