40th Celebration raises appreciation of Liberty Hill’s sculpture park

Master carver Bob Ragan of Texas Carved Stone works on a sculpture to donate to the Liberty Hill International Sculpture Park during Saturday’s 40th anniversary celebration of the 1976 Liberty Hill International Sculpture Symposium. Ragan has been a stone sculptor for 35 years. (Rebecca Canfield Photo)

Master carver Bob Ragan of Texas Carved Stone works on a sculpture to donate to the Liberty Hill International Sculpture Park during Saturday’s 40th anniversary celebration of the 1976 Liberty Hill International Sculpture Symposium. Ragan has been a stone sculptor for 35 years. (Rebecca Canfield Photo)

By Rebecca Canfield

Organizers say the 40th Celebration of the Liberty Hill International Sculpture Symposium last Saturday was a “tremendous success” and was the first attempt at an annual arts festival.

“The festival celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Liberty Hill Sculpture Symposium was a tremendous success,” said Larry Nicholson, president of the Liberty Hill Development Foundation. Saturday’s festival, Nicholson said, is only the beginning of what is to become an annual festival leading up to the 50th anniversary of the original symposium.

The original International Sculpture Symposium, which was held in October 1976, was the brainchild of famed sculptor and Liberty Hill resident Mel Fowler who passed away in 1987. Fowler helped create the sculpture park by bringing together 25 sculptors from six countries to create the original works of art.

It took sculptors over two months to complete the sculptures, which were once located in downtown Liberty Hill. However, due to vandalism, the sculptures were later moved to what is now Liberty Hill Intermediate School.

Williamson Museum Curator Ann Evans told Liberty Hill Living magazine that the Liberty Hill symposium was the first international symposium in the southern United States. Additionally, it was the first and only documented incident of a sculpture park being located on school property. The sculptures today are appraised at $1.6 million.

“We’re focusing on exposure of the artwork,” Nicholson explained. “We want to create an appreciation for sculptures. That’s why we bring in these sculptors so people can see that. The sculptures are still a secret. We’ve got to open the doors and get people to come out and see them.”

Saturday’s celebration began at 9 a.m. with self-guided tours of the sculpture park. The event also included a classic car show, a silent art auction, and featured several musical guests.

Entertainers included the Liberty Hill High School Marching Band, Misty Smith, former LHHS band member Allison Lingren, Will Charland, Rio Rising Band and the Dylan Kennedy Band.

The event also boasted an artifact display with historical photos from the original symposium and several art displays. Additionally, artisan vendors sold everything from quilts and handcrafted toys to fine paintings and hand crafted jewelry.

The classic car show also garnered a lot of attention, as it showed off some of Liberty Hill’s finest classic automobiles including a 1969 Chevy Camaro owned by Joe Hopkins, which won the People’s Choice Award; a 1926 Ford Model T owned by Billy Williams, which won the Museum’s Choice Award; and a 1968 Road Runner owned by Chris Penders, which won the Best in Show.

The festival also offered numerous activities for children including a hands-on booth, where children made tie-dyed bandanas, practiced soap carving, had fun with some splatter painting, made puppets and artist trading cards, and did some rock painting as well.

Organizer Susan Barnes said the hands on booth was a real hit with young people.

“The event is about honoring what we have in our beautiful international sculpture garden and about promoting the arts in our community,” said Barnes. “We’ve had tremendous support from the community and the artists have all been great.”

One part of the day that was particularly special, Nicholson said, was seeing the thrill people got while watching the sculptors at work.

Throughout the day, the sculptors worked on a special sculpture that they later donated to the Liberty Hill Development Foundation. The sculptures were auctioned off to help raise money for the conservation and repair of the current sculptures in the sculpture garden. Between the donated sculptures and the silent auction, Nicholson said that $5,113 was raised, though that amount is expected to be higher as there are still some unsold specialty pieces to account for. Nicholson also said that the City of Liberty Hill was a tremendous support and even bought two of the donated pieces themselves.

City Secretary Barbara Zwernemann confirmed Wednesday that the City purchased two sculptures for a total of $2,000. The artwork will be displayed at the new City Administration Building as a way to showcase the heritage of the community. She said funds for the purchase were found in the budget for furnishings for the new building.

“We’re out here showing people what stone carving is all about,” said sculptor Stuart Simpson of Austin Stone Carving, who spent the day creating a sculpted mask. “We’re really loving it.”

Simpson, who studied under master craftsman Bob Ragan, who was also present at the event, said that many attendees asked how to learn stone carving, and some wanted to join a stone carver’s group. The event’s sculptors, Simpson said, are all friends and are also members of the local stone carvers guild.

Last Friday, Liberty Hill students got the opportunity to come out early and learn about sculpting from the sculptors and craftsmen.

“The kids were just so fascinated by it,” Nicholson said. “To me that made all these hours that we put in worthwhile. When you create an interest, you’ve done a lot.”

The money raised is all part of an effort to move some of the sculptures that are on the school grounds into Lions Foundation Park, to conserve and repair the sculptures, and hopefully to build a museum that would house some of the smaller sculptures and pieces of the original collection.

Mary Morse, a member of the Board of Directors for the Texas Society of Sculptors, stated that the Development Foundation will be seeking grants in order to accomplish some of these tasks, and that Saturday’s event was mostly about raising awareness, though the funds are helpful.

“We’re trying to clean up and repair the art,” said Morse. “There’s also a need to climatically house the archives and Mel Fowler’s small sculptures, and maybe one day to even expand the collection. The story of the sculptures is part of the story of the town.”

Nicholson says that the Foundation is in the early development process of writing grant proposals. Nicholson also stated that the group’s first step was to create interest. Then, the group plans to get smaller donors before they move up to larger donors for the project.

“We are very grateful to the artists who came and demonstrated their skill by completing five sculptures while we watched and then donated their finished sculptures to the auction,” said Nicholson. “We also wanted to recognize and honor those who in 1987 moved the sculptures to the school site and thereby preserved them from vandalism and eventual destruction. The Liberty Hill Development Foundation has now taken on the responsibility for the preservation and restoration of the sculptures. In a joint effort with the citizens of Liberty Hill and many other helpers who appreciate art, the International Sculpture Garden can again take on national prominence.”