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Saving Ohio River Grass

By Steve Ramos · November 16th, 2005 · Arts Beat

One word sums up the riverfront patch of land occupied by Ohio River Grass, the recently shuttered East End nursery, for artist Yvonne van Eijden: magical.

Ohio River Grass is too beautiful for words, but the Dutch-born Van Eijden does her best. She helped capture its beauty by organizing the summertime outdoor sculpture exhibition Art in the Grass in the nursery's lush gardens (see "Take Us to the River Grass," issue of Aug. 25, 2004).

Earlier this year, Ohio River Grass didn't meet its goals as a business and closed its doors. Art in the Grass was cancelled. One of the loveliest spots on the riverfront has become a sleeping oasis, shut off from the public behind its chained gates. What remains are the diverse plant and animal life that thrives in a river flood plain.

Ohio River Grass sits and waits for a buyer who believes in the purpose of land like this, someone who'll re-open its gates and invite the public to share in its beauty and allow artists to create work for this spectacular setting.

The greenhouses are as empty as the farmhouse that once served as Ohio River Grass' office and headquarters. The grasses stand tall in the wet November air and remain as beautiful as ever. One bank of tall grasses stands along the chain link fence, a clear reminder of what the place is meant to be.

Overcast skies and raindrops don't dampen the beauty. Nearby soccer fields and shade tree mechanics bring a buzz of energy to Wenner Street just off Eastern Avenue and before the junction of Delta and Kellogg avenues.

But nature reigns at the closed Ohio River Grass. The plants survive despite the absence of caretakers. The outdoor sculptures have weathered well and look like they belong here.

The spot is legacy of veteran sculptor Stuart Fink, who bought the property from a Portsmouth, Ohio, trucking company in 1985 to make a home for himself and scratch out a meager living planting and selling ornamental grasses.

The 1997 flood put his land under six feet of water. Grasses survived, but his home was destroyed. Fink rebuilt but decided it was time to move and focus on his artwork year round.

He sold River Grass in 2001 to Ann Vogel and Cooper Burchenal for a hefty profit that enabled him to retire to Northside and live a hermit's life. They shared Fink's vision for the land, but the nursery turned out to be a difficult business to operate at a profit. They moved to Missoula, Mont., and put Ohio River Grass on the market. They're waiting, Burchenal says, for the right person to buy the property.

"If someone was going to bulldoze the place, I wouldn't sell it," he says, speaking from the Missoula design firm where he works. "I couldn't do that to the plants and animals. I couldn't do that to the legacy of Stuart Fink."

Burchenal expresses no regret for buying Ohio River Grass despite the financial setbacks. He's proud to be part of the place's history and part of the East End melting pot of diverse cultures that should inspire Cincinnati.

His task at hand is to wait for someone to pick up the torch and save this priceless spot of art and nature -- someone who believes that Ohio River Grass is a riverfront spot to make Cincinnati proud.

Along Eastern Avenue, the East End is about things to come, a snapshot of an integrated neighborhood between longstanding Appalachian residents and transplanted professionals moving into the luxury condominiums further west around Eastern and Collins. Just east of Ohio River Grass, a massive new public school sits on stilts above the flood plain.

At Ohio River Grass, nature takes over, replacing the noise from construction workers with insects and birds.

The riverfront is for public use and public good. Ohio River Grass would be a sound investment and the perfect spot for an artist's residency.

The return of Ohio River Grass would mean the return of Art in the Grass, an exhibition that celebrates the Ohio River, provides a bucolic getaway in the heart of the city and introduces quality artwork to the people of Cincinnati. It's everything a river spot is supposed to be if someone else steps in and gives the land another chance.

Contact steve ramos: sramos(at)citybeat.com


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