Here in Cornville, Arizona, 100 miles north of Phoenix, Oak Creek is usually just a gentle stream with a meandering flow. Recent torrential rains, however, have turned it into a fast-moving river. If we are going to reach Eliphante on the other side, we’ll need a boat.
Not a problem.
Tracy Schinagel, executive director of this nonprofit sculpture garden/artist’s haven, boards a small wooden craft from the other shore and pulls it across the creek with the help of an overhead guide line. We step into the vessel carefully and she reverses her course. It’s the coldest Arizona day I can remember, so a dip in the drink would not be fun — at all.
Schinagel gets us to the other side of the creek safely and I exhale. An unconventional start to our tour of an unconventional place.
Eliphante, so named because of the shape of one of the sculptures on the property, represents the life’s work of artist Michael Kahn and his wife Leda Livant.
The artistic couple came to Cornville from New York in 1979 and agreed to be caretakers of a 100-acre parcel in exchange for three acres where they could live rent-free, create and provide a space for other artists to work, too.
That they did.
Kahn, a free spirit who loved to work with discarded materials, constructed several Hobbit-like buildings where he and Livant lived and worked. Every dwelling provides visitors with a story and an explosion of multiple textures and colors at every turn. It is impossible to move quickly through Eliphante’s landscape; there is too much to see and touch and ponder, and hardly a surface has been left untouched.
Kahn’s work defies the logical and according to historians, the artist never bothered to explain the why or how of his creations. This is somewhat of a relief, as it means that visitors don’t have to interpret or understand; they have only to enjoy the absurd, the off-kilter and the often amusing.
“The materials Michael Kahn used were cast-offs or gifts or gathered in nature,” explains Schinagel as we pick our way carefully through the Hippadome, once home to Michael and Leda. “He was inspired by (surrealist artist) Max Ernst.”
Unlike Ernst, though, “Kahn was not into commercial art. He would rather buy paint than food. They lived frugally.”
Livant, who worked in textiles, became Eliphante’s one-person promoter and also did plenty of physical labor when it came to construction.
In the late ‘80s, the couple created a nonprofit which subsisted on donations and occasional tours.
Kahn died in 2007 and the 100 acres was sold in 2010. (Livant, in her 90s, resides in Cottonwood, about 10 minutes to the west.) The new owners, who established a vineyard, gave the Eliphante nonprofit three years to buy the three acres. It did so, and today Eliphante has a board of directors and crew of caretakers that includes Schinagel, ho focuses on fundraising to finance the revival of what is becoming an artists’ colony.
Their challenge is formidable; it will take thousands of dollars to repair and revive Eliphante, but Schinagel and a few volunteers are working at it bit by bit. Schinagel says that Eliphante reminds her of the miniature golf courses of her childhood in Tucson.
“When I came in 2010, Eliphante had gone for two years without attention and was falling into disrepair,” she explains. “I knew you couldn’t build like this today, and I knew it was important to keep it around.”
Schinagel and other more recently arrived caretakers David Whipple and Ryan Matson do much of the physical labor the restoration requires. They live in tiny dwellings on the property and organize potlucks, poetry readings, work parties and other social gatherings. Most are members-only events (because of local codes), but once a month, the public is invited to visit.
A $25 membership fee allows you to see the grounds by appointment and join activities. Visit eliphante.com.
For more photos, visit facebook.com/elouiseondash.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at firstname.lastname@example.org