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Claymation in real-time

Seeing the pickax lying alongside the path was a bit of a jolt, considering a young woman was going to be wrapped head to toe in clay a short ways away on the edge of the Niagara Gorge.

It turned out the pickax was not there to free the artist’s model, who would have no trouble later loosening herself from her red clay casing. The ax was used to chew into the rocky soil of the cliff top, so two apple trees could be planted after the clay wrapping, also for the sake of art.

It made more sense if you were there.

The unusual and peaceful process Thursday was part of Artpark’s commemoration of its 40th year. The former summer artists’ colony – now better known for its weekly concerts with old-time rock and roll bands – is celebrating its origins this season by inviting back some of the early experimental artists who embraced its concept of outdoor art, environmental works and public participation. This event was all of those.

Sculptor Bill Stewart, who lives near Rochester, was among that freshman creative class, and he is back with his son, sculptor Greg Stewart, to re-create and reinvent some of the work he did in 1975. That includes covering people in flat slabs of wet clay to make abstract, mummified figures that are not quite human, not quite earth, before the person inside emerges in a sort of rebirth.

“I was thinking of it in terms of humor and of film,” said Bill Stewart, explaining his original concept before Thursday’s wrapping. “And that someone could be inside the art, and ‘acting’ as he came out.”

Stewart was surprised to find his very first volunteer from 1975, artist Christopher Canole, putting in his own new installation this week just up the trail from where he and his son were working, and was glad to see him – with good reason.

“It took so long to wrap him, by the time I was done, he had hypothermia. The clay pulled all the heat out of his body,” Stewart recalled.

The process has been fine-tuned since then, with the clay strips “pre-rolled” to speed things up and the volunteers wearing protective costumes.

The elaborate costumes of layered, sculpted fabric are not just for safety; they are part of the artwork. Designed and sewn by Greg Stewart, the fanciful suits of colorful cloth shards resemble something from “The Lord of the Rings,” or ancient ceremonial garb, and give the artistic process a sense of ritual pageantry and, perhaps because of the attached antlers and the potato print on some of the pieces, a nice touch of humor.

Thursday, as hawks rode the thermals above the gorge, and herons and seagulls glided over the green river below, Greg Stewart and volunteer Lisa Drennan donned their suits of many colors, (which Drennan described as “surprisingly comfortable,” even when covered in clay).

Totally covered and unrecognizable, the two then carried small apple trees to a grassy spot on the cliff, surrounded by wild flowers and framed to the south by the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, and prepared to make a new work of art.

“That’s close enough – don’t go any further!” Bill Stewart called out, “or ‘Artist disappears off the cliff’ will be the headline tomorrow!”

The rest of the action was less dramatic but quietly intriguing. A small group of observers – some of them deliberately there, others hikers who happened upon the spot – watched in muted curiosity.

“Art is not fast,” one person remarked.

“Is there someone in there?!” a late-arriving onlooker asked.

And still Greg Stewart went about his work, which was being recorded and photographed from start to finish.

As he explained afterward, “Art’s original intention was for ritual and the spiritual, to help us tap into another space. With this, the sculpture is able to fold over us, to have our own body in the piece.

“Usually, I don’t have an audience, it’s just me in the landscape, with a couple of friends,” he said, noting he had done similar works in Death Valley, the Salton Sea and near the Grand Canyon. “The only way to see it is usually through photos and videos and the suits.”

When the wrapping was finished, what lay on the edge of the gorge no longer resembled Drennan at all – with or without the costume. Instead, it seemed to be either returning to the soil, or, since the apple trees were also part of it, emerging from the earth.

And, even though everyone knew this was going to happen, it was still startling when a hand suddenly popped out of the clay, then an arm, and all the rest of Drennan.

The apple trees, now free of the clay, were planted on the rocky ledge and the art entered another phase.

“I’ve tried to figure out how we could do this and make it permanent, but it just wouldn’t work,” said Bill Stewart. “It’s really a story – you can’t take it apart and put it back together.”

Stewart plans more clay wrappings at Artpark every Saturday in July, from 1 to 4 p.m. More details about his project and other returning alumni can be found at the Artpark website,