GOSHEN — Sometimes, the greatest inspirations are born out of sorrowful situations. This was the case with Richard Richardson, the creator and caretaker of the Three Sisters Sanctuary. The sanctuary sprawls over eight acres and is filled with more than 250 stones and sculptures — and lots of other re-purposed stuff. (There’s a fire breathing dragon!) It’s a Willy-Wonka-meets-Dali-meets-Tolkien kind of place, with a little Lady Londonderry thrown in. “It’s what happens,” Richardson says, “when you’re compulsive and propelled by destiny, and there’s no one or nothing to rein you in.”
The sanctuary, located at Richardson’s home in the western hills, began some 25 years ago, when his brother was diagnosed with melanoma. In the last year of his life, he asked Richardson if they could work together to create a perennial garden. “Working with the land helped ground me,” Richardson said. “My brother knew this.”
Ten years later, Richardson lost his eldest daughter suddenly to an aneurysm. “I came back after putting her to rest and stood right here,” Richardson commented, as we looked out at a stone amphitheater ringed with tall arborvitae pencil trees. “None of this was here. It got started because of grief.”
With no formal training in gardening and no background in art or landscape architecture, Richardson went to work building an amphitheater to honor his daughter, who loved music and outdoor entertainment. “Instead of choosing the dark side of grief, I chased the light,” he says. “I knew I needed the land again to heal myself.”
It’s an impressive spot, a sunken meditation area surrounded by Goshen stone walls, that took six years to build. Today, it’s used for yoga and meditation sessions, concerts, and special events. Nearby is the Sacred Garden containing a cairn with his daughter’s ashes.
There are peaceful spots in the garden, set against a backdrop of marshlands and swaying grasses. But mostly it’s a riotous, whimsical, eclectic collection, with bejeweled creatures and nearly hidden fairies, mermaids and dancing children, cairns and ceremonial stones, stained glass and iron works. A two-story tin man with a large red heart on his chest stands near the entrance, next to a wooden barn adorned with and surrounded by lots of re-purposed junk art (think: an archway made of old bicycles). Also near the entrance is Richardson’s house, an art piece itself, with its bright orange bric-a-brac, built-in flower boxes, random fence sections as porch railings, and a mishmash of trim work and art. Gaudi’s Park Guell came to mind. There’s a water garden and fountain, guarded by a sitting mermaid sculpture, and a path leading to serene woods, lined with sculptural works of other local artists, including a flying eagle, made from cutlery, by John Bander.
The centerpiece of the garden, and Richardson’s newest project, is the Life Labyrinth, a series of connected spaces accentuated with large Goshen stones. The walk begins with “the courtship phase,” an area called “Dancing with the Ladies” meant to represent a school dance when an attraction begins. A short path lined with glacial erratics leads into the “Seduction” room.
“But first there’s contemplation,” Richardson explained as we walked the path, stopping at a large granite stone. “This is the stone of contemplation; this is where you make up your mind,” he said. “Which way do you go?” From the stone, there are paths leading in all four directions.
We moved on to “Commitment,” with an alter stone and a stone sculpture representing two people kissing, then on to “Conception,” and “Childhood,” and eventually through the “Exit of Life.” Once, along the way, Richardson stopped and urged us to take turns standing between two large quartz stones, with our arms stretched toward them. “Quartz is the only stone known to man that can give and take energy; you’ll feel it,” he said. And we did, a tingling in our arms.
The path led us out into the Butterfly Garden, anchored by a delightful wire sculpture of children dancing around a maypole, created by artist Michael Melle.
There was more: a treehouse and the Faerie House and the dragon’s den and firepit, decorated with offerings, including toys, multi-hued glass objects, metal objects, jewelry, and more thrift shop junk. The body and tail of the dragon circles the stone den.
What’s next? We asked Richardson that question as we exited the gardens. Maybe a fairy villa, he told us. And just then, the colorful, stone and metal dragon erupted, sprouting a fiery volcanic spew from his jagged-tooth mouth. We jumped in surprise, and then laughed. Rowling meets Richardson.
THREE SISTERS SANCTUARY 188 Cape St., Goshen, 413-268-3677, www.threesisterssanctuary.com; open daily 8 a.m.-6 p.m., adults $10, children under 12 free.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org