March 17, 2021

Where Sculpture, Landscape, and Creativity Meet: The Dorothy Riester Home and Studio

When looking at a sculpture by Dorothy Riester, it is easy to get lost following the lines of the bended metal as you strive to understand where the physical material ends and the form begins. Only when you step back do you see the sculpture as it was meant to be seen, where the space surrounding the piece is an integral part of the whole. The same can be said for Riester herself, where her life and work is intertwined with her home and studio.

Born in 1916, Dorothy Riester began her career as an artist as an undergraduate at what is now Carnegie Mellon University, before going on to obtaining her master’s degree from Syracuse University in sculpture and design. Authoring the book Design for Flower Arrangers, Riester is also known for her work with abstract sculptures using a combination of ceramics, welded metal, or as she says in her memoir, "sticks, stones, and limbs."

A picture of a rainbow over Hilltop House and Stuido with a woman, Dorothy Riester celebrating below.

photo by: Courtesy of the Dorothy and Robert Riester Collection and Archive

A historic photo of Dorothy Riester celebrating a rainbow above the Hilltop House.

Innovative for the time, her large, outdoor pieces were designed to consider not merely the place where they stood, but also the broader context of the land on which these pieces sat. Riester once said that she “see[s] spatial relationships in everything, even in my dreams. For me, sculpture is the process of balancing these relationships until they sing. I always see real-life objects in terms of shapes, light, contrasts, and space."

This philosophy, a blending between the art and nature, is reflected not only in the sculptural pieces that Riester produced, but also in the art park that she and her husband Robert (Bob) opened in Cazenovia, New York. Known as the Stone Quarry Hill Art Park (SQHAP), this remarkable place—which includes The Dorothy Riester House and Studio (Hilltop House and Studio)—is one of the newest members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program, and a part of the campaign for Where Women Made History.

An Artist at Home

In 1958, the Riesters purchased a 23-acre property in upstate New York, and while they lived in Syracuse where Bob worked for the Carrier Corporation, they began work on the structure that would eventually become their home.

From the beginning Dorothy Riester designed Hilltop House and the adjacent studio to be a sculpture all on its own, integrating the lived space with the creative midcentury aesthetic of Riester’s work. Sarah Tietje-Mietz, the director of the Hilltop House and Studio, says, “The home is a constant conversation between architecture and environment emphasized with insightful design and hand-crafted elements.”

Typical of Midcentury Modern homes, Hilltop House uses ready-made materials in an open floor plan. However, what makes this National Register designated property distinct from other mid-twentieth century homes is how integrated Dorothy’s artistic touch is throughout the house. This is evident from the floating staircase that was designed and installed when the interior of the home was completed in 1960—the omission of risers and skirting allows for a sense of openness —to the magnificent, handcrafted fireplace that is prominently centered in the living room. The organic feel of the fireplace comes from a proprietary mixture of sand and cement over a metal frame.

Across from Hilltop House is an A-frame structure that served as the artist’s studio. Built in 1962, the walls of windows gave Dorothy an open view of the land, providing ample inspiration for her artwork. It was here that Riester sculpted her “Young Lincoln,” a 9-foot-tall, forged iron piece that captured Lincoln as a “folk figure striding across the landscape.” For Dorothy, “art was not only a recording of experiences, but a physical way to feel the experiences.”

An Advocate for Preservation and Conservation

In addition to her work as an artist and sculptor, Dorothy Riester served as an advocate for preservation and conservation. She celebrated the past but emphasized the importance of the need for progress and innovation.

View of a set of stairs in the center of a room. They appear to be floating, without support.

photo by: Revette Studio

An iconic floating staircase leads to the upstairs of the Hilltop House.

When she lived in Syracuse, she was involved in a movement that sponsored legislation aimed at preserving historic structures, and together she and Bob restored their 1823 townhouse. In 1967 she was one of the founding members of the Cazenovia Preservation Foundation, an organization that worked to document the history of the community along with its architecture.

An active member of the New York Scenic Highway Commission, The New York Times quoted Dorothy in a June 28, 1970, story about Cazenovia: “We are too quick to tear things down. The whole concept is to preserve the best and to build in relation to, not a facsimile of, that best.”

Perhaps her work in conservation and preservation is most evident in creation of the Stone Quarry Hill Art Park. Over time the original acreage of the Riesters’ land expanded from the original 23 acres to 104 acres. Almost from the beginning Bob and Dorothy knew they wanted the space to be open for others, recognizing that the hill on which the house was built was known affectionately by locals as “picnic hill.”

And so in 1991, the Riesters incorporated the park, fully opening it to the public with an active artist-in-residence program. Over the years, hundreds of artists have responded to the landscape of SQHAP, reflecting as Tietje-Mietz says Dorothy Riester did in her work where she “used the landscape both as a platform—the material—but also as a pedestal.”

Visitors to the park can find sculpture amid meadows, and within forest trails, embedded within the landscape. For Dorothy Riester, “the Park [was] not an outdoor museum of sculpture placed statically in a landscape setting, but rather an ever-changing partnership between artist and environment.”

A Creative Community Space

Bob Riester passed away in 1996 and Dorothy in 2017. Tietje-Mietz reflects, “Everything she did from the art that she made, to the house that she built, and her studio it was in conversation , juxtaposed in and/or against or made part of the landscape. And depending on how you approached or experienced it changed your view or your interaction with it … Riester was able to sense the point of tension between the built and natural world and see where interesting things could happen.”

Today Stone Quarry Hill Art Park is open all year round to the public. Visitors explore trails and meadows while interacting with outdoor artwork that evolves and changes with every season, and will, once pandemic restrictions ease, be able to visit Hilltop House and Studio as well as The Riester Archive and Collection through guided tours, exhibitions, and programs. (The studio currently is used by Geoffrey Navias, a local artist whose work includes painting, mixed media, and woodworking.)

Dedicated to showcasing art from emerging and established artists, SQHAP is also committed to imagining and creating an Art Park that is more inclusive, equitable, and accessible. As Stone Quarry’s CEO Emily Zaengle describes, it is differentiating between “replicating and relevance. We want artists to engage with the home, the collection, the grounds—to add their histories, narratives, and voice to the conversation about art and land. That is the relevancy of the Riester story. It is not just retelling over and over what Dorothy accomplished in the 100 years she was alive; it is about carrying her ethos forward.”

Inclusion in the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios Program not only expands the impact of Dorothy’s art and the Riesters’ vision beyond Cazenovia, but also includes Dorothy Riester’s work in broader conversations about the relevance and importance of midcentury design, art, and the environment. Tietje-Mietz says that “having Dorothy’s creative life included as part of the larger dialog of artists’ homes and studios will develop a more profound understanding of the importance of a life lived in art—especially one lived by a 20th-century woman artist. We are honored and beyond excited to be part of a community that both celebrates the range of environments shaped by artists and challenges itself to expand the traditional notions of historical importance.”

This summer you can learn more about The Dorothy Riester Home and Studio on the Historic Artists' Homes and Studios Virtual Road Trip.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

@priyastoric

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