Ohio Art Corridor: Conducted art trail that brings color to rural Ohio

Exit the highway to discover original works of art and the city’s little gems.

‘School of Fish’ by artist David Griesmyer | Photo by James McGrath

‘School of Fish’ by artist David Griesmyer | Photo by James McGrath

“Have you ever tried staring at a photo of a vulture for hours?” Ric Leichliter relaxes as he squinters at the sun, the wind ripping his gray ponytail. To his left, a flock of steel turkeys rummages in an open field. To his right, a handful of metal vultures ominously eye sculpted branches. “They’re just… ugly. It is not a good thing to watch.

The artist and master blacksmith sculpted these creatures for the Falcon flight sculpture park, located just outside of Lancaster in Southeast Ohio. Leichliter liked to cook turkeys; vultures, not so much.

“But, they said it was part of the landscape,” Leichliter shrugged. “So I put them in there.”

The sculpture park sits on a six-acre plot off of Highway 33. The Resistance Pais, also from Leichliter, is a 42-foot-tall metal hawk with a 14-foot wingspan. It beckons to anyone navigating the highway, especially when it’s lit up at night.

But Falcon flight ain’t just a one-off bizarro road attraction. It is part of the Ohio Art Corridor, a 132-mile stretch of pastoral road dotted with large-scale art installations, murals and sculptures. It’s an initiative to bring color and creativity to the tiny corner of Ohio’s Appalachians, showcasing local talent and drawing curious visitors to small rural towns they might otherwise have passed by.

“I wanted to create something to show what Southeast Ohio really is,” says welder David Griesmyer. We stand before his creation, School of fish, a series of 20-foot-tall fish planted along the Muskingum River. “How do we get people in and out of the freeway and help our small businesses?”

Greismyer is the creative force behind the Ohio Art Corridor. To help attract business to his metalworking shop in McConnelsville, he built a giant dragonfly and, in the spirit of guerrilla marketing, placed it in the middle of a local park. It worked. If one sculpture could attract so many new people to a business, Greismyer realized, every trace of them could transform a region.

Griesmeyer’s work “Wind in the Gale” will be placed in a public garden in Zanesville. | Photo courtesy of the Ohio Art Corridor

While driving tourism was the original goal of the Ohio Art Corridor, Griesmyer also wanted to bring a bit of culture to his hometown (population: just over 2,000) and the region in his. together. “Appalachian people don’t have a lot of money to pay to go to museums,” Griesmyer told me. “So we wanted to bring all this public art together, it’s outside, it’s free.”

The response from the community has been almost unanimously positive, according to Griesmyer and her sister-in-law Rebekah, executive director of the project. “A lot of people here are good old boys or peasants,” she says. “They want to see an art that represents what they do and what interests them.”

sculpture patterns

Hunting and fishing attracts a lot to the region – one of the reasons why School of fish was the first sculpture created by Griesmyer for the hallway. His next job is a big buck from Virginia who will be placed in a McConnelsville roundabout.

“Mediums [the artists] the use is very telling of Southeast Ohio, ”Rebekah continues. “It’s the rust belt. They use a lot of metal, a lot of steel and aluminum. And people are excited about it.

The corridor allows for a scenic drive from Zanesville (about half an hour east on I-70 from Columbus), down the Muskingum River to McConnelsville, through hills to Athens, then across small towns and farms as far as Lancaster and Circleville. It can easily be done in a day and provides a rewarding lesson about the region in the most appetizing way: through art.

Alan Cotrill’s exhibit outside the Muskingum County Courthouse | Photo courtesy of Visit Fairfield County

You wouldn’t know it from its appearance, but Zanesville, Ohio was once a major transportation and commerce hub. It even served as the state capital of Ohio from 1810 to 1812. Walk through town today, however, and not much is happening.

That is, until you see the penguin riding a sheep. The eerie sculpture is just one of dozens of people parading down US-22 through downtown Zanesville, leading to the sculptor Alan cotrillstudio of. Most of the time, $ 2 gives you access to the studio, where you can watch Cotrill work his magic or just browse his creations.

From its front door, you’ll spot the Muskingum County Courthouse, an old Italianate-style structure that looks more like Disney’s haunted mansion than a temple of justice. It is still one of the most impressive buildings in the state; up front you’ll find the Cotrill sculpture and the war memorial of a soldier guarding the helmets of his fallen comrades.

‘Tree of Life’ in Lancaster town center | Photo courtesy of Visit Fairfield County

About an hour’s drive away, Lancaster – the hometown of General Sherman who earned his fortune as a shipping hub along the Ohio Erie Canal – strives to bring modern art to a community steeped in history.

“We want to be more than the Ewings, Shermans and Dead Whites,” says Amanda Everitt, executive director of Discover Downtown Lancaster. “It’s an important part of who we are, but we have other stories to tell.”

The city Outdoor aerial art trail brings together a collection of over 40 works, including a downtown sculpture park overseen by Ric Leichliter (you know, the vulture guy). Contemporary murals are also beginning to adorn some of the city’s historic red brick buildings.

“There were a lot of rules about what you can paint on historic buildings,” says Everitt. A series of murals inspired by the art of Fran Taylor, a mid-1920se The century-old artist whose works have appeared on Anchor Hocking kitchen utensils, will soon span the length of a sunny downtown lane, instantly making him an ideal lunch break along the hallway.

Everitt says art has been a big draw for people from big cities looking for small-town escapes.

“We’ve seen a big increase in visits (since the pandemic) and we know the arts are attractive,” she says, looking at renderings of the murals that will soon cover the walls. “And maybe they’ll decide they like it better than living in a big city.” And they can move here. You do not know.

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @ meltrez1.

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