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Island artist Kate Lawless honors enslaved women at the Manor with her work “Taking Pause.” (Photo credit: Charity Robey)

Don your hat and tuck those pants into socks. While this might not be your first choice for an art-opening outfit, it’s the right outdoor uniform for “Sculpture @ Sylvester Manor” on Shelter Island.

Created by twenty-five East End artists, the first-of-its-kind exhibit on the Island is being held in the property’s old growth forest and garden and can only be experienced on foot. This magical walk in the woods features works by some of the country’s most accomplished artists, three of whom — Kate Lawless, Mary Ann Moy and the late Alan Shields — come from Shelter Island. The pieces they created, many specifically for this show, use a variety of media, including logs, bark, steel, rope, paint, ceramics, audio recording and sticks.

“Sculpture @ Sylvester Manor” is the creation of Tom Cugliani, a curator and 35-year veteran of the New York fine arts world. Since 1961, his family has lived on Shelter Island, and since the pandemic has been Cugliani’s home base.  

Artist, gardener and creative force behind Sculpture @ Sylvester Manor, Tom Cugliano. (Photo credit: Charity Robey)

As a six-year-old child, he remembers his mother bringing him to Sylvester Manor to see the windmill, with the permission of Alice Fiske, the last lady of the Manor. Later, Cugliani and Fiske became friends through gardening.

“She was my flower fairy,” he says, and added that he keeps an eye on a fragrant, climbing rose he gave her that still blooms in the formal garden. 

Cugliani longed to curate an exhibit that told the story of the Manor’s unique landscape and its transition over the centuries.

“History and culture and the natural world have merged here,” he says. “Meadows and woods, Black and indigenous people, and the Europeanized order of the formal garden.” 

It took years to move from a vision to an exhibit. There was no budget, and the artists chosen for the show had to agree to transport and install site-specific pieces at their own expense. Their art would be displayed for almost three months in a place that is open to the elements and to the public. Sixteen women and nine men, including Latino, Black and Indigenous artists are represented.

An American painter who has exhibited three times at the Whitney Biennial, Mary Heilmann creates outdoor furniture out of marine plywood painted in her distinctive palette. The show will feature one of her brightly colored benches in the Sylvester Manor woods.

Alan Shields was one of Shelter Island’s best-known artists, and his children, Jason Shields and Vicki Weslek have agreed to lend one of their father’s distinctive beaded works, which will be displayed in a lush setting of shaded forest floor, ferns and a vernal pond.

Some of the installations refer directly to Sylvester Manor’s history of enslavement, including Faith Evans’ graphite images from the life of Julia Havens and a work by Shelter Island artist Kate Lawless entitled “Taking Pause” that repurposes ropes from the North and South ferries coiled around a cedar tree and embroidered with the names of women enslaved at Sylvester Manor.

In the Manor’s formal garden, artist Scott Bluedorn has created images of the three islands involved in the triangle trade of the 17th century. A labyrinth of Shelter Island is the last and largest of the three representations and the image of Barbados created by Bluedorn’s collaborator, Sheila Batiste is linked to Bluedorn’s image of Great Britain in the next garden by a tubular wave created in cedar by Bill Stewart, allowing visitors to walk through his piece while passing from Bluedorn’s Great Britain to his Shelter Island labyrinth. Experienced together, Bluedorn, Batiste and Stewart’s works tell a story of the history of the Island.

To see the entire exhibit takes about an hour for a 2-mile loop, but it’s possible to take a shorter stroll and see just the woods or the garden.

Above all, Cugliani believes that “Sculpture @ Sylvester Manor” has something to interest everyone, including children.

“People have an idea of what defines or constitutes sculpture, but that’s not what this is. It’s very gentle. I don’t think it will be hard to understand. Not everybody has to know about art to find some element of charm in these works.”

“Sculpture @ Sylvester Manor” started on June 22 and will remain on view until September 8, 2024.  On July 14, Cugliano will give a special narrated walking tour from 10:30 a.m. to noon; secure your spot here. The exhibit is free and open to the public and you can download the Sylvester Manor Walking Tour app and click on the Sculpture @ Sylvester Manor tour for a self-guided experience.