Sculptor finds beauty, art, sense of community in Liberty Hill

By CHARLEY WILKISON

John VanCamp looks through a portfolio of his work at his studio in downtown Liberty Hill. (Photo by Charley Wilkison)

When John VanCamp first arrived in Texas, he was a most disappointed young man.

“I thought I’d see old swinging door saloons and herds of cattle running down the street,” he says shaking his head and smiling at distant memories of youth and naiveté. “My image of Texas came from TV,” he said adding that his father always watched “Gunsmoke” on television back home in Philadelphia.

Instead of meeting Festus and Marshal Dillon, John met all the geology professors at Baylor University where he landed in the mid-1960s, straight out of high school. Baylor had a nationally recognized geology school and John had applied only to universities West of the Mississippi because he wanted to make a new life somewhere other than the eastern part of the U.S.

“I hated the snow and I hated the cold,” says John looking out the window into the triple digit heat of an August afternoon.  It just so happened that his parents were Baptist so Baylor was something they could agree on.

As a kid John had a genuine fascination with science, he was particularly curious and interested in rocks and minerals and became somewhat of a collector. He followed his interests in science into good grades, graduating 16th out of a class of 500.

John completed his degree in Geology from Baylor in 1968 and was immediately drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam.

“Had it not been for the war, I would have gone on to get a PhD,” John says. “At one time I thought seriously about teaching.”

When John returned from Vietnam he wasn’t sure where his life would take him.

“After the war, I had trouble working for people,” he said, “that’s the simplest way to explain it.”

He moved to Lake Travis in the early 1970s, tended a quarter-acre garden and lived in a tent for a year and a half. It was during this time he began to be interested in masonry and became an apprentice to a stone mason. By 1974, John was beginning to contract his own work.

“I made a commitment that I was going to create, to do something other than subdivision work,” he said of his early leanings toward creating architectural carvings.

John moved to Liberty Hill in 1975. He wanted to move to the country, liked the town, liked the people and decided to settle here.

As fate would have it, John was given a front row seat to a great art and sculpture movement that was the brain child of the late Mel Fowler. Artists from all over the world moved into Liberty Hill in 1976 as part of Fowler’s International Sculpture Symposium — creating the large works of art that are currently housed at Liberty Hill Junior High School. The sculptures were a gift from the artists to the community, the state and the nation during the Bicentennial.

The area of downtown Liberty Hill that is now home to the VFW Hall and the Over the Hill Gang Senior Center was the  staging area for all of the artists.

“It was basically just a big open pasture where they’d kind of been having a monthly flea market,” he says remembering those days. “All those sculptors came to live right here in Liberty Hill. They lived with various families and then worked right down there. They were working all the time. You could walk down there and stand and watch them. They would stop work and visit. Different ladies would make them lunch and bring it down there. Or they would all come up to Wanda’s Café that was here on the main street (Loop 332). Seems like they were here part of the year, mostly the summer.”

John laughs when he recalls a poker game where the rules of Texas cards came to a head against someone’s European customs. John’s recollection is the Texans pointedly explained how cards were played in the Lone Star State and that was the end of the discussion.

“Liberty Hill was a different place back then,” his voice grows softer as he describes the main street being closed off, a band being summoned and an all-night dance taking place right in the middle of town.

As the sculptors began their journeys back home, John found himself extremely curious and interested in their art. He finally shared his interest with Sculptor Nadia Escabito. His interest was immediately welcomed with open arms. But John confessed his lack of training, his lack of art education, his background in science, not art. The sculptor dismissed all his lack of formal training by telling him that the creativity came from inside the artist. Escabito laughed and told John to quit listening to artists and start sculpting.

“He told me to ‘carve you something. If you don’t like it, throw it out the back door, then, carve another,’” he laughs recalling his one and only sculpture lesson.

His first piece was finished in 1980. It was a small piece he carved from a stone he picked out of a local pasture. All the while he continued earning a living creating architectural carvings for public buildings, churches, art galleries, homes and other buildings. He became a member of the Stone Carvers Guild.

John mostly worked with local Central Texas stone to carve staircases, fire places, ornate benches, fountains for gardens, and many other creations.

But his other love was sculpture. Between jobs he continued to create, to express himself with stone. Then, came the notice of other sculptors, art collectors as well as the galleries.

“Sculpture is a meditation,” he said. “My most successful day as a sculptor is when I don’t have a conscious thought at all.

“I want people to see what they see in it, their experiences inside it, instead of seeing what I saw in it,” said John.

He has been asked many times if he is an architectural carver or a sculptor? He’s neither. He considers himself a stone mason, of the lineage of the Cathedral builders.

John VanCamp’s sculpture has taken him places he could not have imagined. His latest piece is a gift to the people of Liberty Hill called “Frozen Dance.”

He began work on it in 2002, finished it in 2004 and it has been awarded a jury show in Waco where it remained on view for a year. Next, it spent two years on display in San Antonio representing some of Texas’ finest stone sculptures. Finally, it finished its final year on display in Marble Falls where thousands of people were able to see it before coming home to Liberty Hill.

About his gift of “Frozen Dance” to Liberty Hill he says sadly that it’s his last offering.

John is suffering from health problems that he says are due to exposure to Agent Orange — an herbicide used during the Vietnam War to cause the leaves to fall off plants in the war zone. The chemicals used in the defoliant were later found to be the cause of many health problems, including various forms of cancer.

“My hands are dead,” he says sadly looking down at the two appendages that created so much beauty. “No feeling at all.”

His days as a sculptor are finished. He admits that it’s depressing to even go inside his studio where so many creations came to life. He plans to sell out and hopes it will go to another creative person.

His final piece belongs in Liberty Hill, he says without hesitation. John says his studio and shop caught fire in October of 1997 and burned to the ground. Dozens of pieces were destroyed along with a big shipment of hand carved fireplaces, and various household appointments that were headed for California. John says that while he watched in disbelief, the people of Liberty Hill went to work to put him back in business.

“Seventy percent of the material and finances and 100 percent of the labor came straight from the people. They just went to work and held auctions, fundraisers, donated supplies, and we all just worked together to get everything back on track. I owe this community an awful lot,” he pauses, “it took them less than three months to help me rebuild everything.”

That’s not all. John VanCamp gives Liberty Hill the credit for his entire sculpture adventure.

“I came to a fork in the road of my life. Had I not been here, in the Liberty Hill community during the time of the sculptors’ gathering, I would not have taken my work in this direction,” he said as he sits quietly among the silent witnesses of his love of art and stone.

John’s sculpture “Frozen Dance” will be donated to the Liberty Hill International Sculpture Park next year when the pieces of art are moved to their permanent home in Lions Foundation Park. A dedication ceremony is planned for spring 2013.