By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
Planted on the lawn by Liberty Hill Intermediate School, in what is the only international sculpture park on a school campus, Tirez Moi De La stands as a stark testament to the modernism that came to Liberty Hill 30 years ago — and the aging that is slowly claiming it.
Sculptor Jean Paul Phillipe flew to Texas from France to work on it as part of Liberty Hill’s 1976 International Sculpture Symposium. Though he stayed with a local family for months that year, he never learned any English, and still speaks none even today. The work he left behind those years ago, however, needs no language.
Two abstract figures stand feet apart, one stout and one skinny. Both are carved into rippling forms and etched with expressive gestures. And both, once both uniformly beige, are being blanketed by soot-like black stains growing from the top down.
Tirez Moi De La, like the other Symposium pieces in Liberty Hill’s International Sculpture Park, are in desperate need of cleaning and restoration, their caretakers say.
Recent efforts to do such continued Nov. 30, when the pieces were paid an informal visit by conservation expert Ivan Myjer.
“Some definitely need some tender love and care,” said Myjer, who is one of the five professionals being considered for a contract by the statues’ owners.
“These sculptures are a part of Liberty Hill’s heritage,” said Larry Nicholson, a senior member of the Liberty Hill Development Foundation. “They are probably the most valuable asset in the community, in terms of the story they tell, or their artistic value.”
The Foundation owns both the sculptures and the park that co-hosts them with the adjacent Intermediate campus.
With few exceptions, the sculptures all date back to the 1976 International Symposium in Liberty Hill.
Liberty Hill artist Mel Fowler, an internationally exhibited sculptor, had attended the European International Sculpture Symposium in 1975 and was inspired to organize a similar event in the southwest. Though Austin was originally considered, he was convinced by other locals to host it instead in Liberty Hill.
Roughly two dozen sculptors from six counties— Japan, France, Italy, Canada, Mexico, and the greater United States — came to stay in the town with local families for several months while they worked on the pieces.
The unique event brought recognition to the town. In 1977, the State of Texas awarded Liberty Hill with the first ever Texas Arts Award for the significant promotion of fine art in a community of fewer than 100,000. Liberty Hill at the time had less than 600 people.
Last year, the 22 sculptures, which have suffered from both natural weathering and vandalism over the decades, were appraised to be worth roughly $1.6 million in total.
Thursday’s visit by Myjer, while informal, is the second time the pieces have been visited by a conservation expert.
Earlier in the year, the Foundation was awarded a grant from the American Institute of Conservation in Washington, D.C., for a collections assessment. The grant allowed the Foundation to hire a conservator to visit and give a general report on the conditions of the works.
In June, the sculptures were surveyed by independent conservator Julie Unruh.
“Every sculpture in the collection would benefit from cleaning and almost every sculpture would benefit from conservation treatment,” Unruh wrote in her 33-page report.
The same report also recommended that a qualified conservator be contracted to further assess the sculptures on a more individual level, determine the structural stability of some, and come up with recommendations for each piece’s restoration.
Liberty Hill Cultural Affairs Committee member Mary Morse located 12 professional conservators who had experience with outdoor sculpture pieces, and sent them an inquiry for the project.
Morse says that because most of the pieces are limestone, she focused the inquiry on those.
“They’ll make the biggest bang for your buck in terms of change,” she said.
Morse also wants to see out of any appraisal the creation of a protocol for volunteers to continue certain cleaning efforts themselves over the years.
“There are some things that John Q. Public can do, and there’s somethings that a professional needs to do,” she says.
She points to the Umlauf Sculpture Garden in Austin, which is maintained by volunteers on a yearly basis, as a model for the Foundation to emulate.
Problems with the pieces vary.
For some the damage caused by vandalism is extensive.
Myjer pointed to “Mother’s Lap” as looking like it had been hit by a car. Foundation President Gary Spivey, who was present for the tour, said it was likely.
Most of the vandalism occurred in the decade between the Symposium and when the Sculpture Park was dedicated at the school, he said. During that time, the sculptures sat downtown near what was then the VFW building (now the Fellowship Church Annex).
“Kids were running into them with their pickup trucks, and breaking things off,” he said. “Moving them here was the best thing we ever did.”
Also vandalized was “Western Vision,” a limestone sculpture of a nude figure outstretched on her stomach. The sculpture’s nose is missing, and there is a large indenture in her posterior.
These are the sort of repairs that would require professional care.
“Night Guardian,” a concrete piece poured over a steel frame, by Rita Sutcliffe, would mostly need to be disassembled and put back together, Myjer said. Expanding cracks have been covered over the years with layers of garden variety sealant, which Myjer called “inappropriate repairs.”
“These were done by well-intentioned citizens, people who did the best they could with what they had,” he said. “But it doesn’t really solve the problem. And the seal actually expands and pushes out.”
For many, research into the artist’s original intention would need to be done.
For example, “Liberty Couple,” the twin figures at the entrance to the Intermediate School’s portion of the park, were once covered in chrome, owing to their having been made out of car bumpers. Whether or not the artist foresaw the chrome washing out would be one question, Myjer said.
Myjer was optimistic that many of the more basic cleaning processes could be performed by trained volunteers, as Morse and other Foundation members hoped.
“This isn’t the sort of thing you can just power-wash,” he said.
The Foundation has so far received four proposals for their conservation contract, and are expecting to receive a fifth. The bid amounts range from $8,000 to $12,000.