THROWBACK THURSDAY: Flowler, Nelson put Liberty Hill on the map in mid-1970s

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Mel Fowler spoke during the 1987 dedication of the Liberty Hill International Sculpture Park. It was the last time he would be in Liberty Hill, as he died a few months later while in Italy. (James Wear Photo)

Mel Fowler spoke during the 1987 dedication of the Liberty Hill International Sculpture Park. It was the last time he would be in Liberty Hill, as he died a few months later while in Italy. (James Wear Photo)

By JAMES WEAR

Both were artists, both used their hands, both wore their hair long and both left an impression on Liberty Hill back in the mid-1970’s that is still being felt to this day, although it could be argued with some conviction that Liberty Hill continues to reap benefits from sculptor Mel Fowler’s legacy while the only thing that remains from Willie Nelson’s 24-hour visit to town is a lot of fond memories.

Of course, I’m reminded by wife Paula that there was a baby born during Nelson’s picnic (the baby was, according to Paula, named “Liberty”) and I suppose somewhere out there there’s a lady nearing her 40th birthday who has quite a tale to tell her friends about her first day on this planet.

I never met Mel Fowler (who passed away in 1987), but I was on hand taking photos the day he and other community leaders held a dedication for the Liberty Hill International Sculpture Park on what was then the high school campus. Several of those photos appeared in The Independent a few months ago.

Never did meet Willie either, although I have to admit I passed up on an opportunity to do such one night back in the early 80’s while listening to friends perform at an Austin bar that Willie owned at the time.

“You want to go say hi to Uncle Willie?” asked my friend Dave, whose band, Jobangles, was being managed by Willie’s daughter.

I could see Willie at a nearby table, but fearful that I might say something silly, or worse become totally tongue-tied in the presence of country music greatness, I politely declined Dave’s invitation.

It wasn’t until a few days ago, while reviewing some old newspaper clippings, that I realized Fowler first came to Liberty Hill at the urging of the late Oscar “Ozzie” Klein, who lived out in Durham Park with his wife Dorothy.

I had met Klein at the Liberty Hill VFW back in the late 1980’s and over the years did some repairs on the couple’s home. It was while doing some touchup painting one afternoon on the Kleins’ upstairs deck that I heard a loud explosion and then my fire radio toned Liberty Hill firemen for what ended up being the gas line explosion out at Sundance Ranch — but that’s another story for another time.

The Kleins were among those invited by Fowler to attend an “informal gathering” back on Nov. 9, 1975 in local realtor John Chesley’s office in downtown Liberty Hill. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a proposal that Fowler had to hold an international sculpture symposium in Liberty Hill — and what such an event could mean to Liberty Hill “both economically and culturally.”

Fowler, who had attended a similar event in Europe in 1975, returned from that gathering believing such an event could be held in Texas. He first eyeballed Austin as the host city for the event. But the late James Vaughan convinced Fowler that Liberty Hill would be the ideal location for such an undertaking.

The meeting was held, and in the Nov. 17, 1975 issue of The Libertarian, Fowler is quoted as saying, “This is something we can provide for generations to come, something our children and grandchildren can enjoy and point to with pride.”

The community rallied behind Fowler’s proposal, and less than a year later, from mid-October through the end of November, 23 artists from six countries worked away in Veterans Park at works of art that totaled in value at more than $1 million. Local residents provided room and board for the sculptors, and local businesses chipped in financial support for the endeavor. When complete, the sculptures remained in Liberty Hill.

Some years later, as the Liberty Hill ISD eyed construction of a new high school on Loop 332, which is now the intermediate school campus, Don Cunningham, the district’s administrative assistant, approached Fowler about the possiblility of moving one of the sculptures to the new campus. Fowler agreed to the idea, although he stipulated that the district must agree to move all of the sculptures.

Once again, the community rallied behind Fowler and the school district, and on May 5, 1987, the Liberty Hill International Sculpture Park was dedicated. Among those attending the event was Rita Clements, the First Lady of Texas.

Fowler left for Italy the day after the dedication. He planned to spend the next few months there. It was the final time he would see the park, as in September, he lost his life. Whether it was accidental, as newspaper accounts at the time reported, or a murder, as his son would later claim, remains uncertain.

What is certain is that Fowler’s dream continues to provide Liberty Hill with a treasure that is once again being viewed by community leaders as a unique resource to incorporate into the city’s overall design.

To learn more about Fowler’s works, and other artists who participated in the 1976 symposium, visit www.lhsculptures.com.

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