Liberty Hill Development Board working to preserve the past

By KATE LUDLOW

Members of the Liberty Hill Development Board from left are Mark Witcher, Marion Tully, President Larry Nicholson, Jimmy Oliver, Gary Spivey, Ray Anderson, Darwin Wiggers, Bob Harris and Gary Jackson. (Photo by Kate Ludlow)

Liberty Hill’s past will take a giant leap into the future as the Liberty Hill Development Board works to  restore sculptures from  the Liberty Hill Sculpture Garden and create a permanent home for them alongside a museum to house Liberty Hill’s long and storied history.

In 1976, 23 artists from six different countries came to Liberty Hill to participate in the International Sculpture Symposium hosted by world-renowned artist Mel Fowler. For two months, the artists lived with Liberty Hill residents, sharing sleeping space and dining room tables as they created works of art on a larger scale than shipping and material costs would normally allow.

The result was over 20 large scale works that were then donated to the community. The sculptures were  moved to one central location, adjacent to Liberty Hill Junior High School. At the time, that building was the high school, and the sculptures imparted a bit of culture and served as the backdrop for numerous school photographs, lunchtime memories, and solidified the uniqueness of the community.

Between October and November  of 1976, the symposium mixed artists with blue-collar workers, a mix that at first glance may have seemed odd.

“But considering the fact that the town had just hosted Willie Nelson’s rowdy Fourth of July picnic, it made sense,” said Gary Spivey, a member of the Development Board.

Texas Society of Sculptors Vice-President Mary Morse, who was recently elected president of the Austin-based organization, says that

work ethics reached out and crossed cultural differences.

“I think the locals were impressed with the physicality of the task. They were taken by it, and it overcame the oddness, and the visual anomaly of some of the art pieces,” she said.

The artists came from a wide variety of countries – Tunis, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, as well as the United States.

The high school was, in Morse’s opinion, a good location.

“You had the authority of the school behind it. It also gave the sculpture garden real credence, real significance. That’s always the issue with something like this in a small town, the security of it, the protection of it,” she added.

According to the archives of The Liberty Hill Independent, the community’s oldest newspaper, at the time of its dedication, Fowler said, “If I had a thousand different choices where to put them, this would’ve been my first choice, to put it on the campus of a school. It’s the only high school in the world with an international sculpture park.”

Soon, the sculptures will be moved to their new home at Lions Foundation Park, and Morse thinks that is the perfect time to work on restoring them.

“On some of the sculptures, you have issues like plaques missing, broken elements. Of course, there’s the accumulation of dirt and mold,” she said.

Morse first heard of Liberty Hill’s  sculpture garden when she began working with the TSOS, an organization of which Fowler was a founding member.

“We (the TSOS Board) always try to take field trips. We talked about it, and took a trip out there. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. I mean, there are five or six (sculptures) out there I’d like to have myself,” she said.

Some of the sculptures have age issues, and all of them could use a good cleaning, she said.

“Limestone is a soft stone. Some of the pieces have set under a tree or have had water dripping onto them. There’s one, made of marble that has a piece popped off of it. Cleaning the sculptures would be a good place to start,” Morse said.

“It’s what the original intent was,” says Spivey of the sculptures’ move. “The Liberty Hill Cultural Affairs Committee always wanted these sculptures to be on a 20-acre tract, and the school never had 20-acres to spare. Foundation Park has the space, so it’s a natural fit.”

Spivey said plans call for a walkway to be built between the school and the park,  still giving students easy access to the sculptures.

“We’re just finishing up the original idea and carrying out the original intent of the Cultural Affairs Committee,” he said.

The sculpture garden was registered with the Smithsonian Museum Art Inventories Catalog in 1993. Its archives hold descriptions and stories on the pieces.

According to Morse, it’s widely accepted that Fowler got the idea for this symposium after participating in a similar one in Germany. He wanted to do something to commemorate the United States Bicentennial and the idea grew. Fowler operated art studios in Liberty Hill and Pomezzana, Italy. Liberty Hill was chosen because of its remote location and its proximity to Austin.

In 1987, while swimming at his home in Italy, Fowler slipped, hit his head and drowned.

“All those different types, coming together to work on something of this magnitude. It’s an amazing story,” said Morse.

With a renewed interest in the sculpture garden, the Liberty Hill Development Board is turning the wheels to establish a museum.

Spivey has been working with Ann Evans, a University of Texas graduate student, to archive years of photographs, newspaper clippings, and video taken by James Vaughan, who passed away in 1998.

With an undergraduate degree in history, and in her second year of the Information Science Master’s Program, Ms. Evans of Georgetown is volunteering her time this summer to digitize the mountain of information that Spivey has collected through the years.

“I had no idea this was out there (the sculpture garden),” she said. “As a kid, we would drive out to my grandparents’ house in Burnet, and going down Highway 29, I was vaguely aware of something over there. So that’s what drew me to it.”

Various community history projects are detailed in a database, waiting for an enterprising student to select them, and the Liberty Hill Sculpture Garden attracted Evans immediately.

“The rarity of it, as well as it kind of fits with what I want to do….it was a good fit,” she said.

Eventually, Evans wants to work in an archival or museum setting, and documenting Liberty Hill history is giving her the perfect work experience for that career.

“Most of what I have is from Gary Spivey. There are notes from Mel Fowler, receipts from the Liberty Hill Cultural Affairs Council, and Mr. Vaughan’s video,” said Evans. “What I have shows the kind of process, the grants, and it help you figure out how they (the council) made it happen.”

Not only will she be working to digitize the information, she will be working to preserve the digitalization after it is created.

“We have to make sure the future generations have access to it,” she said, likening it to VHS, a good medium at the time, which has now become outdated. “Paper and photos are a sure thing, but if you want to use those, it’s still best to digitize them.”

Evans has worked with the Williamson Museum in Georgetown, so the chance to work with a museum from the ground up was one she found exciting.

“It’s interesting, from a community perspective, and it was interesting from a county perspective,” she said.

Though Evans will work through the summer and into the fall, she will graduate, leaving any undone tasks behind.

“I hope to build a good base, so that anyone who comes behind me isn’t starting from scratch,” she said.

Spivey, in the meantime, is working to expand the Liberty Hill Public Library, and house the Liberty Hill museum within.

“The money for the slab is there. We’ve gotten donations over the past 18 or 20 years. We still need donations for the building, and as soon as the money is there, we can start construction,” he said.

Those interested in donating to the Liberty Hill Museum project may send donations directly to the Liberty Hill Development Board, PO Box 300, Liberty Hill, TX, 78642, or visit the website for more information.