Exploring Eliphante, A Hidden Arizona Art Haven

Eliphante. Melodic to say — and hard to explain. The hand-built collection of buildings and sculptures began more than 30 years ago as a painter’s vision, tucked away off a residential street in the tiny town of Cornville.

People say you can’t put it into words. You just have to be there.

So there I was, heading down an overgrown, winding path on the four-acre plot. I was padding over fake grass, beaten down by decades of sun and feet.

“Yeah, this place does look like a mini golf course of sorts, except for — more strange,” said Cole Lahti, the unofficial Eliphante ambassador.

She took me past amorphous sculptures and little shacks drenched in color. We finally found Ryan Matson, Eliphante’s executive director for nearly six years. He’s one of a half dozen caretakers in their 20s and 30s who live onsite in a small village of vintage trailers.

“We bring a little bit of youth culture to Eliphante,” he said.

They’re continuing what painter Michael Kahn and his wife, Leda Livant Kahn, started here on the lush banks of Oak Creek more than three decades ago. It’s beautiful and shaded and used to be mistaken as public land, before its owners asked the couple to be caretakers.

“It was just a handshake,” Matson said, which grew into a tangle of structures made by two people with no architectural experience — or plans. Just spontaneous creativity.

“It sort of unfolded from their minds or extended off of their canvas,” Matson said as we headed into a building he calls the “heart” of Eliphante.

We walked under a giant, vaulted ceiling.

“You’ll notice the temperature gets very comfortable in here,” Matson said. “Half the building is buried underground.”

I want to say it looks like something. A colorful ear canal, maybe? But the domed cathedral-like structure is a hodgepodge of so many things: stacked rocks on the wall, a carpet mosaic on the floor, shiny Mylar on the ceiling. It’s the kind of building you couldn’t “get away” with making these days, Matson told me.

“Well, none of this was meant to be resold,” he said. “It was just meant to live in and it really became that extension of their heart.”

That’s a tradition Matson and a core group of Eliphante believers want to continue. They’ve spent the past few years raising awareness and money. Enough to purchase the land outright.

Their mission? Explaining to the public why this place matters.

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Eliphante co-creator Leda Livant Kahn puts it this way: “Because it’s the creative pulse that’s working there. And that never stops.”

She’s nearly 90 years old and now lives in an apartment in nearby Cottonwood. But she’s still involved in the place and happy to see it on people’s radars one more. She said she and her late husband probably had thousands of visitors over the years.

“Everybody felt they had been given a gift by visiting Eliphante,” she said.

Some people would tell her the place inspired them to change the colors in their own home, or throw out their furniture and build new pieces themselves.

“But, I mean, everyone was so excited,” she said.

And that excitement can still be felt. Back at Eliphante, darkness had fallen over a monthly celebration of Eliphante lovers. A vegetarian potluck was filling the outdoor kitchen and an impromptu band had struck up a song (musical experience not required).

Jerome resident Jessica Laurel Reese was sitting underneath a wonderland of trees sparkling with tiny, projected lights.

“I mean, there’s a different resonance here. There’s this hyper creative, really beautiful whimsy everywhere,” she said. “And I think that kind of follows you out of here.”

And maybe it nudges you to create something beautiful and strange and free of rules in your own life.

By Stina Sieg/KJZZ

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