Smithsonian eyes Sculpture Park piece

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Art appraiser Suzanne Staley (center) is joined by Liberty Hill city and art figures. They include from left, Mary Morse, president of the Texas Society of Sculptors; Cathy Howell of Diverse Planning and Development; Ann Evans, The Williamson Museum curator; Gary Spivey, member of the Liberty Hill Development Foundation; Kirk Clennan, the City’s economic development director; Kandice Wright; Larry Floyd, member of the Liberty Hill Development Foundation; and Clint Bittick, consultant. (Christine Bolanos Photo)

Art appraiser Suzanne Staley (center) is joined by Liberty Hill city and art figures. They include from left, Mary Morse, president of the Texas Society of Sculptors; Cathy Howell of Diverse Planning and Development; Ann Evans, The Williamson Museum curator; Gary Spivey, member of the Liberty Hill Development Foundation; Kirk Clennan, the City’s economic development director; Kandice Wright; Larry Floyd, member of the Liberty Hill Development Foundation; and Clint Bittick, consultant. (Christine Bolanos Photo)

By Christine Bolaños

A reclining woman gazes out at the countryside. Her hands protect her eyes from the rays of the sun. Her skin, made of limestone, is worn from age and weather. Despite the years, people still look at her in awe.

Once called “Under the Texas Sun” she is fondly referred to as the “Western Vision” in Liberty Hill and holds her own against several unique pieces that make up the Liberty Hill International Sculpture Park.

What makes the April 1978 piece stand out these days is the attention she has drawn from the world-renowned Smithsonian Institution.

In town this week to determine the value of Western Vision and the other sculptures is Suzanne Staley, an esteemed certified appraiser and broker of fine art and antiques, who hails from Houston.

The 30-year veteran art consultor said she has not appraised a project quite like this one before.

“Not just a public sculpture garden. I think that’s a little unusual but the purpose is very understandable,” Staley said. “Because now it’s 39 years on and there’s been damage from people and weather and they need to be conserved. In order to be conserved any conservator is going to want to know how much are these worth in case they fall apart in their studio.”

Limestone, in particular, weathers down and reduces the value of a piece. In determining the value, Staley must answer the question: What would it take to go out and replace that piece of sculpture should it be damaged or destroyed?

What is a buyer willing to pay for the piece? What is the comparable value? The fair market value? These are all questions considered in determining worth.

If the artist behind a particular sculpture is still living and making similar pieces, it is Staley’s job to find out what it would take for that artist to replace that piece of sculpture. In an instance where the artist is no longer living, then Staley would look for someone who produces similar type of work.

Staley estimates the appraisal process will take 60 days, but could take longer.

“You get an accurate assessment value of this artistic resource and it enables you to share that resource with others and hopefully they can help with conservation of it, promotion of it and increased awareness of this art to the rest of the world,” said Kirk Clennan, economic development director for Liberty Hill.

“We’re going to have an accurate assessment of this resource so we can promote it and so we can also solicit funding,” Clennan said. “Now there’s a certain confidence in the art world that Liberty Hill knows about their resource. They’re an informed community. Now we can share that and see if others can help us with that endeavor.”

Staley describes the sculpture park as an unknown gem that is waiting to be discovered.

The sculpture park is the product of a 1976 event in which 25 sculptors from six countries arrived in Liberty Hill to make history. Local historians said some artists reportedly arrived with only the clothes on their back and their sculpting tools.

For two months, Liberty Hill residents opened their homes to the artists, fed and cared for them as they created the monumental structures that are now housed at Liberty Hill Intermediate School. The event was the product of retired Air Force pilot Mel Fowler who organized the first international sculpture symposium in the southwest. Since then, other artists have added sculptures to the park.

Other artists allege the late Fowler appraised the sculptures at $1.2 million shortly after the 1976 event.

“What we’re interested in with the Smithsonian is possibly moving one of the sculptures to the Smithsonian in (Washington) D.C.,” said Gary Spivey, local historian and lifetime resident of Liberty Hill.

He said Western Vision is the only known sculpture Ann Merck made out of stone. Everything else she made in metal.

“What’s sad is vandals smashed her nose and her face,” Staley said.

Spivey said that will not matter to the Smithsonian who has displayed pieces of work with wear and tear in the past. Staley agreed, adding that some pieces have missing noses.

“What we’re interested in doing with the Smithsonian is to get something moved there so that we can generate revenue,” Spivey said.

The move will generate publicity and carry on the sculpture’s legacy.

“Twenty years from now people aren’t even going to recognize Liberty Hill,” Spivey said.

Staley said once word starts spreading of the sculptures, artists and developers will be drawn to the area.

“We’re trying to carry this on for historical purposes and ensure its endurance,” Spivey said. “We can’t move it until we have it insured.” Mary Morse, president of the Texas Society of Sculptors, believes the significance of placing a value on the sculptures is significant not just for the artists, but the community.

There tends to be disconnect among artists and community members, but the symposium helped connected them in Liberty Hill.

“They got to know the human beings that were doing it and accepted those individual artists,” Morse said. “Here’s this little community who invited all these artists to come in. I think probably the bridge was the hard workingness of it — the fact that it takes so much effort and so much time to whittle down a piece of stone the size of these.”

Watching a piece of art in the making is an experience, she said.

“Anybody who can come in contact with a piece of art like that can really grow and take time to know it and experience it,” Morse said. “Hopefully, in the future, there’s going to be an appreciation and an understanding and an acceptance on the part of the community on what the world of art is all about — it’s always changing, it’s always becoming something.”

The sculpture park is well on its way to becoming a tourist destination as many city leaders have envisioned.

“There are three components of Liberty Hill’s tourism future,” Clennan said. “They include historic, natural and artistic resources and this is absolutely of critical importance to economic diversification of this community. I believe that art complements and creates a sense of place and creates a focal point for residents and visitors to take pride in.”

Learn more about the park by visiting www.lhsculptures.com.

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