Your initiation into this alternate world begins with a tunnel of driftwood arches, a delicate and twisted passage that guides you upward onto a meadow. Sculptures of flotsam, of tree limbs and discarded metal, line your path. You step inside a cave-like entryway made of stucco and chicken wire and are funneled into a man-sized duct formed by what appear to be stiffened bed sheets, a comforting, yet motionless drapery that feels like it's trying to anesthetize your brain as it crushes your body.
Before you know it, you're crawling on your belly through near darkness, with only a small, cherry-colored window to guide you. At the other end, you emerge into an isolation chamber, a very sparse and very calming room that offers only one way out: a squeeze-through doorway atop a 5-foot ladder. Back in the sunlight, you suddenly recall what birth was like. Welcome to Eliphante.
And that's only the beginning to this three-and-a-half-acre, abstract universe. Yet to be seen are Pipedreams, the Hippodome, Birdland and the myriad mixed-media sculptures that connect them all. A visit here is like being in a collaborative reality conceived by Lewis Carroll, Andy Goldsworthy and Tim Burton after sharing a bottle of absinthe.
It's a world that has to be experienced more than seen. In point of fact, interaction is a requirement, as demonstrated by the initial subterranean journey that practically forces you to become part of the composition. The artwork here surrounds you. It's as if all the pieces in a gallery had fused with the walls, were devoured by the earth and the trees, and continued to grow as one, heteromorphic organism.
The collective title for this world comes from the first structure to be built here when Leda Livant and Michael Kahn moved to Cornville and began building their home in 1979. The building, which acquired an unintentionally elephantine appearance as they improvised its construction, developed a long, igloo-like entryway that resembled a trunk. When the artists' landlord noticed the similarity, he jokingly hailed, "Eliphante!" and the name stuck.
Though Michael and Leda have chosen this grove of surrealism as their home, they're surprisingly down-to-earth people. Upon casual observation, the average suburbanite might throw around the word "hippie," but the term doesn't stick. True, not a corner of their environment escapes some kind of artistic alteration and they do live outdoors most of the year, but they are on the grid and they do run a business.
They love to talk about their art and their visions, but not in a really esoteric and pretentious kind of way. Some of what they do may seem unconventional — like the fact they've covered the entire ground outside with artificial turf — but such unconventionality usually has a sound motive — the plastic grass cuts down on mud and snakes, that's all. In short, they're practical people, just a little more lenient on where they draw the line at eccentricity.
Is Eliphante a sculpture park? A playground? A museum al fresco? You'll have to figure that out for yourself.