A New Driveable Art Trail Brings Creativity and Color to Rural Ohio

Venture off the highway for quirky art and small town gems.

'School of Fish' by artist David Griesmyer | Photo by James McGrath
'School of Fish' by artist David Griesmyer | Photo by James McGrath

“You ever try looking at a picture of a vulture for hours?” Ric Leichliter deadpans as he squints into the sun, the wind ripping through his grey ponytail. To his left, a flock of steel turkeys poke around an open field. To his right, a handful of metal vultures leer ominously from sculpted branches. “They’re just…ugly. It’s not a nice thing to look at.”

The artist and master blacksmith sculpted these creatures for the Flight of the Hawk sculpture park, located just outside Lancaster in southeast Ohio. Leichliter liked making the turkeys; the vultures, not so much.

“But, they said it’s part of the landscape,” Leichliter shrugged. “So I put these in there.”

The sculpture park sits on a six-acre tract off Highway 33. The pais de resistance, also by Leichliter, is a 42-foot-tall metal hawk with a 14-foot wingspan. It beckons to anyone cruising on the highway, especially when it’s lit up at night.

But Flight of the Hawk isn’t just a one-off bizarro roadside attraction. It’s part of the Ohio Art Corridor, a 132-mile stretch of pastoral road dotted with large-scale art installations, murals, and sculptures. It’s an initiative to bring color and creativity to Ohio’s little corner of Appalachia, showcasing local talent and drawing curious visitors to small rural towns they might otherwise have passed right on by.

“I wanted to create something to showcase what southeast Ohio really is,” says welder David Griesmyer. We’re standing in front of his creation, School of Fish, a series of 20-foot tall fish planted along the Muskingum River. “How can we bring people in and get them off the highway and help our small businesses?”

Greismyer is the creative force behind the Ohio Art Corridor. To help attract business to his metal working shop in McConnelsville, he built a giant dragonfly and, in a clever bit of guerrilla marketing, placed it in the middle of a local park. It worked. If one sculpture could draw so many new people to a business, Greismyer realized, an entire trail of them could transform a region.

Griesmeyer's work 'Wind in the Gale' will be placed in a public garden in Zanesville. | Photo courtesy of The Ohio Art Corridor

Though driving tourism was the initial goal of the Ohio Art Corridor, Griesmyer also wanted to bring a bit of culture to his hometown (population: a little over 2,000) and to the region at large. “People in Appalachia don’t have a lot of money to pay to go to museums,” Griesmyer told me. “So we wanted to gather all this public art, that’s outside, that’s free.”

The response from the community has been almost unanimously positive, according to Griesmyer and his sister-in-law Rebekah, the project’s Executive Director. “A lot of people here are good old boys or country farmers,” she says. “They want to see art that represents what they do, and what they’re interested in.”

Hunting and fishing are big draws to the area—one reason why School of Fish was the first sculpture Griesmyer created for the corridor. His next work is a large whitetail buck that will be placed in a McConnelsville roundabout.

“The mediums [the artists] use are very indicative of southeastern Ohio,” Rebekah continues. “It’s the Rust Belt. They use a lot of metal, a lot of steel and aluminum. And people are excited about that.”

The corridor makes for a scenic ride from Zanesville (about half an hour east on I-70 from Columbus), down the Muskingum River to McConnelsville, through rolling hills to Athens, then up through small towns and farms to Lancaster and Circleville. It can easily be done in a day, and provides an enriching lesson about the region in the most palatable way: through art.

Alan Cotrill's piece outside the Muskingum County Courthouse | Photo courtesy of Visit Fairfield County

You wouldn’t know it by the looks of it, but Zanesville, Ohio, was once a major transportation and commerce hub. It even served as Ohio’s state capital from 1810 to 1812. Pass through town today, though, and there’s not much going on.

That is, until you see the penguin riding atop a sheep. The oddball sculpture is just one of dozens parading down US-22 into downtown Zanesville, leading to sculptor Alan Cotrill’s studio. Most days, $2 gets you access to the studio, where you can watch Cotrill work his magic or just peruse his creations.

From his front door, you'll spot the Muskingum County Courthouse, an old Italianate-style structure that looks more like Disney’s haunted mansion than a temple of justice. It’s still one of the most impressive buildings in the state; out front, you’ll find Cotrill’s sculpture and war memorial of a soldier guarding the helmets of his fallen comrades.

'Tree of Life' in downtown Lancaster | Photo courtesy of Visit Fairfield County

About an hour away, Lancaster—the hometown of General Sherman that gained its fortune as a shipping hub along Ohio’s Erie Canal—is striving to bring modern art to a community steeped in history.

“We want to be more than the Ewings and Shermans and dead white guys,” says Amanda Everitt, executive director of Discover Downtown Lancaster. “It’s an important piece of who we are, but we have other stories to tell.”

The city’s Outdoor Air Art Trail brings together a collection of over 40 works, including a downtown sculpture park overseen by Ric Leichliter (you know, the guy with the vultures). Contemporary murals are also starting to grace some of the city’s historic red brick buildings. 

“There were a lot of rules about what you can paint on the historic buildings,” explains Everitt. A series of murals inspired by the art of Fran Taylor, a local mid-20th century artist whose works appeared on cookware from Anchor Hocking, will soon cover the length of a sunny downtown alley, instantly making it an ideal lunch stop along the corridor.

Everitt says the art has been a big draw for people from larger cities looking for small town escapes.

“We’ve seen a big uptick in visitation (since the pandemic) and we know the arts are attractive,” she says, gazing at renderings of the murals that will soon cover the walls. “And maybe they’ll decide they like this better than living in a big city. And they may relocate here. You don’t know.”

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.