By Bonnie Gangelhoff
The picturesque town of Wimberley, TX, is nestled at the confluence of Cypress Creek and the Blanco River. Located 45 miles from Austin in the Hill Country, the town attracts countless city folks seeking a quick weekend getaway, as well as painters who come to capture the towering pecan trees and fields of bluebonnets that bloom each spring.
John Harcourt, an educator, and his wife, Sue Ellen Stavrand, a fiber artist, moved here from Connecticut about 12 years ago and purchased the historic Old Oaks Ranch. They are avid art collectors, and their home, constructed of native limestone, is filled with paintings and sculptures. About five years ago they began what would eventually become a sculpture garden in their front yard. Today the garden is open to the public, free of charge.
It all started with the purchase of a piece by Warren Cullar, Stavrand says. Soon after, Cullar introduced the couple to sculptor Kevin Box. And then Kevin Box introduced them to Josh Tobey. “What’s fun is that sculptors introduce us to other sculptors,” she says. “There’s not a proprietary feeling on the artist’s part that ‘You are mine and I’m not going share.’ It’s more like, ‘Let me introduce you to my friend who does beautiful work.’”
Through these sculptors, the couple learned about Deep in the Heart Art Foundry in nearby Bastrop. Harcourt and Stavrand became regular visitors, checking out the latest works by some of their favorite artists as well as discovering new ones. They also started making regular pilgrimages to Loveland, CO, each August for the Sculpture in the Park and Loveland Sculpture Invitational shows. Today, their sculpture garden boasts some 30 works by 17 artists, including pieces by Cullar, Box, and Tobey as well as Tim Cherry, Martha Pettigrew, John Maisano, and Gene and Rebecca Tobey.
When asked how they choose a piece, Stavrand explains, “It has to make me smile.” Indeed, who wouldn’t crack a smile at Tobey’s THE CONSPIRATORS, three playful bronze bears perched on rocks, or Maisano’s larger-than-life green frog with silver eyeballs? But the couple looks for other things besides humor: “A piece has to touch our heart or be beautiful,” she adds.
They agree on most purchases, Stavrand says, though her husband adds a caveat: “Either one of us can veto a piece if we really hate it. We can’t equivocate, because chances are the piece is going to end up at our home.”
The collectors could have easily kept their lively sculpture garden for themselves, but they decided to share it with the public, especially school children. “The arts are being taken out of the schools, and we wanted to bring the arts to families and kids,” says Stavrand. They also raise alpacas, and Stavrand teaches fiber arts in her studio, including weaving, spinning, and crocheting classes. When busloads of school children descend on the ranch for the day, they can explore the sculpture garden, pet the alpacas, and participate in fiber arts classes, all free of charge.
Harcourt and Stavrand contribute their own money to support these activities, and they have also established a foundation dedicated to sponsoring the school tours and teaching children the fiber arts. What started with the purchase of a single piece of sculpture has grown into a program that has made a lasting mark on the community. For more information, visit www.theoldoaksranch.com.
Featured in October 2009