Conservation efforts continue at Sculpture Park

Published December 11, 2017 in the Liberty Hill Independent

Planted in what is reputed to be the only international sculpture park on a school campus, the twin limestone figures of “Tirez Moi De La” stand as a striking legacy of the modernist extravaganza that shook Liberty Hill thirty years ago.

They also serve as an alarm bell.

Originally a blinding white when they were first carved by French sculptor Jean Paul Phillipe, their billowing forms are now almost entirely covered in soot-like black stains that have grown over the years.

The work is one of 22 pieces in Liberty Hill’s International Sculpture Park that conservators say are in desperate need of cleaning and restoration.

“These sculptures are a part of Liberty Hill’s heritage,” says Larry Nicholson, Vice President of the Liberty Hill Development Foundation, the non-profit which owns the park. “They are probably the most valuable asset in the community, in terms of the story they tell as well as their artistic value.”

Concerns with the pieces, which mostly date to the 1976 International Sculpture Symposium held in Liberty Hill, are varied.

Some were damaged extensively by vandalism throughout the ‘80s, when they sat unguarded for years in the empty lot downtown where they were sculpted.

“Kids were running into them with their pickup trucks, and breaking things off,” Foundation President Gary Spivey said. He believes this is what happened to “Western Vision,” a limestone figure of a woman lying on her stomach, which has a large pockmark in its posterior and a missing nose.

Most have suffered the natural weathering expected of outdoor limestone, such as cracking or growing mossy patches.

A few have been subject to inappropriate repairs over the years by well-intentioned citizens.

“Night Guardian” for example, a concrete piece by Rita Sutcliffe, will likely need to be disassembled and put back together, says independent conservator Ivan Mayjer, because of garden variety sealant that has been repeatedly applied to its cracks.

“These were done by well-intentioned citizens, people who did the best they could with what they had,” he said. “But this kind of sealing actually expands and pushes out.”

Myjer, one of five conversators the Foundation is considering for a restoration contract, paid an informal visit to the park on Thursday to tour the sculptures with Foundation officials.

He said afterwards that while many of the pieces could be maintained with basic cleaning techniques by trained volunteers, as Foundation officials had hoped, almost all need professional restoration first.

“These aren’t the sort of things you can just power-wash,” he said.

Efforts to restore the pieces took off last year when the Foundation was awarded a grant from the American Institute of Conservation for a collections assessment.

The grant allowed the Foundation to hire conservator Julie Unruh in June for a preliminary assessment of the works’ condition.

Unruh appraised the sculptures to be worth roughly $1.6 million in total.

“Every sculpture in the collection would benefit from cleaning and almost every sculpture would benefit from conservation treatment,” she wrote in her 33-page report.

The report also recommended a conservator be contracted to evaluate each sculpture individually for its restoration needs.

The Foundation has so far received four contract proposals, including Myjer’s, and are expecting to receive a fifth. The bid amounts range from $12,000 down to $8,000.

“There are some things that John Q. Public can do, and there’s some things that a professional needs to do,” said Mary Morse, the chair of the city’s Cultural Affairs Committee who has been helping the Foundation seek out qualified conservators. “We can’t cheap out when it comes to our city’s history.”

The sculptures are the legacy of the 1976 International Sculpture Symposium, when internationally exhibited artist Mel Fowler was inspired by the 1975 Berlin International Sculpture Symposium to host a similar event in the American Southwest. After failing to secure backing from the City of Austin, where he originally envisioned the event, he was convinced by neighbors to host it instead in Liberty Hill, where he lived.

Roughly two dozen sculptors from six countries—Japan, France, Italy, Canada, Mexico, and the United States—arrived to stay with local families for two months while they worked on the pieces.

The Symposium is credited by many in the city for putting Liberty Hill on the map.

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. At the time, Liberty Hill’s population was less than 600 people.

After searching for years for a permanent location to display the sculptures, Fowler established the International Sculpture Park on the campus of Liberty Hill Intermediate School in 1987, just months before he died in Italy.

Phillipe, the sculptor behind “Tirez Moi De La,” told the Independent at the time that “moving the sculptures to the school was the best thing Mel ever did.”

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