Our New Neighbor: Grace Knowlton’s Steel Twist

Drivers, bikers and pedestrians entering the Village of Piermont from points South are greeted by Grace Knowlton’s spectacular sculpture, Steel Twist, newly installed at the intersection of Ferdon Avenue and Rockland Road. Knowlton’s iconic work presides over this gateway to our village, resting on a plinth of massive granite blocks, thanks to the generosity of the artist’s family and our neighbors. The story of how this came to be stretches back more than a dozen years.

The idea of making a small park beside Rockland Road bridge and the Sparkill pond waterfall arose when the historic bridge was facing much needed repairs. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 1874 bridge is a rare surviving example of single-span brick-arch bridge construction. To help attract grants for renovation of the bridge, the Piermont Historical Society worked with neighboring homeowners to create the Rockland Road Bridge Historic District piermonthistoricsociety.org. Concurrent roadwork facilitated replacing asphalt with green space, and the village endorsed our proposal to make a small park there. Thanks to these efforts, the bridge was beautifully renovated in 2011, including a triangle of green space. Unfortunately, no funds were available to finish the park.

In 2019, the Piermont Public Art Committee was formed to evaluate the placement of art throughout the village. This committee designated seven sites appropriate for public art, including Rockland Road Bridge Park. One committee member, Joe Serra (co-owner of The OUTSIDE IN across from the park) contacted Grace’s family about a potential donation of a sculpture. Ultimately, this location and was chosen, and in 2020 Grace and her family graciously donated Steel Twist to the village.

Grace had a particular attachment to this work. Though she’s most frequently remembered for her ball sculptures, her work was not limited to spherical forms. As her daughter Eliza Oursler recounted at the recent dedication, “I remember when she began making larger sculptures. She commented on how male artists were building larger and larger work and that she’d have to start creating bigger pieces in order to compete with them successfully! Her concrete spheres gradually increased in size. And she started building these large steel twists.”

Created in 2008, this work sat on a gentle grassy slope on the Knowlton property. The current site, a slender triangle of green space at a busy intersection, couldn’t be more different than its previous situation. This location presented unique challenges, including protecting the sculpture from car traffic and discouraging folks from climbing up on it. The solution was to elevate it on a plinth, which also provided better visibility from all approaches. The slope of the site necessitated several levels of blocks, which step down towards the creek and provide seating.

Sustainability was another consideration. My firm is committed to minimizing carbon footprints of building materials in our projects, often reusing salvaged materials. Luckily, we found a supply of massive granite blocks for this project. These were salvaged from demolition sites in the region, including blocks from old railroad overpasses and sills from a 19th Century mill in southern New England. Our neighbor, P.J. Mouquin, graciously allowed us to stage this material on her nearby property awaiting construction of the park. Piermonter Karl Knoecklein graciously provided a site survey pro bono.

Mayor Bruce Tucker endorsed appropriation of funds for construction of the plinth in 2022. The stone blocks were installed by Arbor Hill landscaping with help from the Piermont Department of Public works and Dan Sherman, chairman of the Piermont Parks Commission. Peter Artin supervised installation of the sculpture with help from neighbors.

The plinth and sculpture are only the first phase of the planned park at the site. Future work includes replacing the unsightly guardrail and invasive plants with new railing and plantings to provide better views of the bridge and waterfall. Installing additional granite blocks forming retaining walls and planting beds will extend the park further towards the waterfall.

We are fortunate to have our new neighbor, Grace’s sculpture, anchoring this park. Grace wrote: “My sculpture is about space. The space is contained within an outer surface made up of intersections and interstices, aged and unified by patinas. I think these are really self-portraits.”

As Eliza shared at the dedication, “I love the idea of Grace’s work as a self-portrait. And it’s even more lovely thinking of this self-portrait standing here in Piermont, a piece that once broke boundaries, now held within the boundary of a communal park for all to see and appreciate. Grace would be SO pleased.”

Walter Cain is an architect residing in Piermont and New York City.