Sculpting in the Sierra: Artist residency hosts sculptors from around the world

Claire McArthur / Tahoe Daily Tribune
Buffalo Creek Art Center sits on a 34-acre ranch in Gardnerville with an orchard, vineyard, ponds, waterfalls and gorgeous mountain views.
Provided / Buffalo Creek Art Center

Nestled at the base of the mountains in Gardnerville, just 14 miles from Lake Tahoe, lies a 34-acre ranch offering a summer retreat for select sculptors to live and create.

The Buffalo Creek Art Center began to take shape in 2016 when the namesake ranch was acquired by Zephyr Cove residents Steve and Lana Hardy. Steve, the founder of a pair of finance and software companies and a lifelong woodworker, found a new hobby in multimedia sculpting about a decade ago, so when the Hardys purchased Buffalo Creek Ranch, Lana knew exactly how the couple should use it.

“She said, ‘You always like to talk with artists when we go to art shows, you’re always working on your sculptures by yourself, and you’d probably really enjoy having a lot of artists around during the summer,’” recalls Steve.

The property was already an artist’s paradise: It boasted an orchard, vineyard, aspen groves, 10 small ponds, eight waterfalls, a nature trail and a pasture to roam in. The 3,000-square-foot, 4-bedroom home on the property became the artists’ living quarters, and the 5,000-square-foot shop that formerly housed tractors was turned into a metal sculpting and ceramic studio with all of the necessary equipment. Steve built a 3,000-square-foot woodworking shop and transformed the existing “train depot” with a restored 1923 caboose into a gallery and artists’ library, respectively.

In 2017, with the Buffalo Creek Art Center certified as a nonprofit, the Hardys welcomed their first round of sculptors for the summer, a mixture of artists invited by Steve and those who applied to the residency online.

“There are thousands of artist residencies all over the world,” says Steve. “But what’s unique about ours is that it is only available to sculptors whereas a lot of artist residencies will have painters and writers and musicians. We also have the space to make really large sculptures, which isn’t always the case.”

John Melvin, an eco artist who creates multimedia sculptures to spark dialogue on ecological change, was one of the first artists to work at Buffalo Creek. Steve commissioned him to create a piece for the center’s 8-acre sculpture park, and over the course of the summer, Melvin constructed “Helix.” Sitting beside a pond with the mountains in the background, the 30-foot wooden sculpture is inspired by DNA’s double helix and the genetic overlap we have with everything from chimpanzees to plants.

“I’m quite honored to have it there,” says Melvin. “It’s my first fully permanent sculpture, and the door that Steve opened, opened many more doors for me since.”

Jessica Bodner, a metal sculptor from Montana, resided at Buffalo Creek in 2018 during a heavy wildfire season. Inspired by the “ethereal glow” of the moon through the smoke and haze, she created a 12-by-10-foot yellow metal moon sculpture called “Balsa Luna,” which translates to “Moon Boat.” It is another of the sixteen large-scale sculptures now living in Buffalo Creek’s sculpture park.

“There are very few residency programs that offer sculptors in particular (especially metal sculptors) a space and tools to work, a great property and a wonderful experience,” says Bodner. “The staff is especially welcoming, and you are basically creating art in a working orchard and vineyard.”

For Phoenix metal sculptor Hector Ortega, his time at Buffalo Creek has opened up opportunities to help other artists in their process. After creating the abstract metal piece “The Four Agreements” in 2018 for the sculpture park, Ortega created several more pieces while helping outfit the metal studio and aiding other artists. Steve has since asked Ortega to come live at the center every summer to create more art and help the new sculptors, and he’s agreed.

“Buffalo Creeks Art Center is a really special place. It’s one of the leaders in the sculpture world bringing large scale art to fruition from a varied pool of artists from all over the world,” says Ortega. “The support at the center, facilities and environment are amazing and bring participating artists a unique opportunity to realize their dreams, not only there on the grounds, but to continue to bring their art to the world.”

The art center is fully funded by the Hardys with no outside funding, and for sculptures that artists want to give to the sculpture park at Buffalo Creek, Steve will pay for the materials himself. Artists can stay for 4-, 6- or 8-week residencies, and usually about 15 artists come each summer.

“The only obligation on the part of the artist is they have to make something. They could make something for themselves, they could do it for a commision or gallery show,” explains Steve.

Though Buffalo Creek Art Center is not usually open to the public, from June through October when the artists are living and working there, the Hardys open up the ranch once a month for studio visits, which are announced through their email newsletter.

Now in its fourth year of operating the art residency, Steve continues to find inspiration from the artists coming through the ranch.

“You’re always getting inspiration from other people, what they do and how they do it, so it’s been really educational for me,” he says. “The residency gives artists a chance to get away from everyday distractions on a beautiful property and enjoy the comradery of other artists. I’m sure it’s helped me expand what I’m doing.”

This article appears in the 2020 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.

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