By Dana Delgado
Heralded in 1976 as a monumental undertaking that attracted an array of internationally recognized sculptors, the acclaimed International Sculpture Park in the heart of Liberty Hill has seen better days.
Despite local efforts to maintain the collection over the past 40 years, the sculptures have lacked professional care and are showing wear from exposure to the elements including weather, nature, pollution and vandalism.
A collections and site assessment conducted June 6-7, 2017 by independent conservator Julie Unruh of Austin shows that the sculptures are deteriorating and in need of varying degrees of restoration. The assessment reviewed the site itself, examined the archives collection, analyzed administration of the collection, and closely assessed each sculpture for damage.
In particular, the conservator noted concerns for the effect on the sculptures by insects (wasps) and small animals (bird droppings), weather, pollutants, lichen, algae, and other microbiological activity as well as accidental damage and vandalism (written and incised graffiti).
“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, “Collections Assessment for Preservation of the Liberty Hill International Sculpture Park”.
“Not all sculptures require immediate treatment and the work can be paced over years,” she stated.
Unruh further reported that “all 18 limestone sculptures have been acceptably altered due to discoloration” from what the conservator suspects as pollutants likely vehicle exhaust. She concluded that while the problem is “serious, affecting both the appearance of the sculptures and the stability of their surfaces,” the erosion has not reached a point of “catastrophic surface loss” but identifies it as a critical priority.
The sculptures identified as in the greatest need of conservation treatment were: “John Knot” (Tom Sayre/US); “Fluidity” (Harry Noordhoek/Canada & Italy); “Mother’s Lap” (Copper Rain Ward/US); and “Night Guardian” (Rita Sutcliffe/US). In addition, the report included concern for the sculptures that were not mounted on a concrete base like the others and found that a number of the plaques identifying each sculpture were missing.
The assessment also included visits with Liberty Hill Development Foundation President Gary Spivey and Secretary Larry Floyd, volunteer Mary Morse, and Liberty Hill City Secretary Barbara Zwernemann.
While praising the community and the Liberty Hill Development Foundation for its significant efforts, Unruh made some “critical recommended actions” among a host of specific recommendations based on her observations and findings.
Unruh recommended that a qualified conservator be contracted to further assess the structural stability and restoration needs of each limestone sculpture with particular notation on the needs of the sculpture “John Knot” (Sayre). She stressed the need for a complete written collections management policy and the compilation of a comprehensive collections catalog of all sculpture and archived materials with back-up copies in multiple locations. Thirdly, she recommended that a funding strategy be developed to address the restoration, site, and management needs.
On July 11, a group of civic, community, educational, and art leaders met to learn and discuss the issues facing the International Sculpture Park and brainstormed ideas on not only how to raise funding for restoration but to examine ways to enhance the park with possibly, the addition of a sustainable multi-purpose facility in simple Bauhaus modern architecture.
Present at the meeting were Spivey, Morse, Sculptor Paul Oglesby, City Administrator Greg Boatright, Senior City Planner Sally McFeron, and Liberty Hill ISD Asst. Superintendent Chad Pirtle. The efforts are being spearheaded by the Liberty Hill Development Foundation with hopes of better maintaining and revitalizing the Sculpture Park.
The free-flowing first meeting for this group brought out a number of ideas and concerns. Morse expressed hopes that the University of Texas could be engaged in the restoration project and asked about the artists’ wishes. Morse said she has been trying to track down the sculptors in hopes of getting their input.
Oglesby, who said he was brought into the project by Mary Morse, was overwhelmed with the park and was excited about the future.
“Seeing all the sculptures was pretty outstanding,” he said. “It creates vibrancy. Few towns have a collection like this. This could be a hub where you could build a real creative community. I see a big potential.”
Spivey remarked that the Smithsonian’s interest in obtaining Ann Merck’s small sculpture “Western Vision” from the collection on loan could be a source of funding for restoring the others.
“We would need a good negotiator,” he said.
Morse expressed the need to prioritize funding and said, “Nothing is going to be cheap. Nothing has been done in 40 years.”
Spivey agreed there was a lot of work ahead but added that “more had been done in the last five years than the past 36 plus years.”
The collections assessment and the July 11th meeting are but two steps of a number of major strides achieved by the Development Foundation. One includes a preservation consultation with Francis Gale, a University of Texas faculty member and professional architectural conservator who visited the site in 2016.
Another is expanding its professional base by fostering partnerships including an invaluable one with the Texas Society of Sculptors (TSOS) with the addition of TSOS member Morse as a volunteer. Morse holds a Master of Fine Arts Degree from Indiana University, served on the Louisiana Tech University faculty for 30 years, and has collaborated with a host of institutions nationally and abroad.
On an October 2016 visit, Board members of the (TSOS) found the collection to be “remarkable, well exhibited but poorly maintained” noted Morse in an article she wrote for the TSOS newsletter. According to her account, the field trip motivated the TSOS Board to organize volunteers to assist with the cleaning of the sculptures but “the scale and historical significance of this collection” soon became a much bigger project than they expected. Discussions with local stonemason John VanCamp who knew renowned sculptor Mel Fowler and Spivey led to a meeting with Jonestown resident Jim Thomas, an artist with an exhibited piece in the International Sculpture Park. Thomas directed her to the Texas Commission for the Arts (TCA) because of their resources and their expertise. In short order, TCA would pose some requisites for restoration: ownership, appraisal, community support, and a long term plan for conservation.
Before reaching out to TCA, however, and during an internet search, Morse came across the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalogue where she found specific information including photographs on each piece in the Liberty Hill collection as part of a survey, “Save Outdoor Sculptures,” conducted in 1993.
The evidence was clear to Morse and the TSOS that the Liberty Hill “pieces are deteriorating and in need of minor and major conservation.”
Archived documents held by the Development Foundation provide a profile of the artists, which included nine women, four from Texas and five from other states. Twelve of the 27 large works were crafted by Texans. The remainder of the artists hailed from five foreign countries. Of particular note is the life of Mel Fowler, a WWII and Vietnam Era pilot who settled in Liberty Hill and became an artist and major catalyst of the 1976 Liberty Hill International Sculpture Symposium and park.
Clearly, something remarkable happened in Liberty Hill for the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976. It was a major happening for a small farming community of 600 and remains a major topic and rallying point for a town on the verge of major growth. With unrelenting community efforts, The International Sculpture Park and its unique ever-evolving story will be a timeless tale of community and artistic pride.
The park is located on the campus of Liberty Hill Intermediate School, 101 Loop 332, and may also be accessed through Lions Foundation Park, 355 Loop 332. The Sculpture Park is free to the public and accessible all the time.