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Artist Buck Winn’s morning glories, formerly installed at Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, are back on the family ranch near Wimberley. A windstorm knocked several over several of the sculptures in 2012. PHOTO by JILLIAN BLISS

by JILLIAN BLISS
For Reporting Texas

In 1963, sixteen larger-than-life morning glories bloomed along the springs of the San Marcos River.

The sculptures, created by Texas artist Buck Winn, were originally commissioned by the Aquarena Springs theme park, a roadside attraction that ran from the 1950s through 1994, when the park was purchased and closed by nearby Texas State University. Texas State officials worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to create a plan to restore the park as habitat for endangered species living along the river.

The morning glory sculptures provided shade for visitors at Aquarena Springs until Texas State University began redevelopment of the property in 2011. PHOTO by JILLIAN BLISS

“We had all those crummy old buildings that were run down, and so we started working with the corps in 1999 because we were interested in improving the habitat over there,” said Bill Nance, vice president of student financial services at Texas State. “We didn’t have a plan for the sculptures because the original plan was to remove it all.”

When Buck Winn’s grandson, Andrew Winn, heard the future of the sculptures was in limbo, he didn’t think it was right for them to go the way of the bulldozer, and he didn’t think they should be put away in storage.

“I just had my gut to go off of,” Winn said, referring to the years he spent at Texas State as a student and Aquarena worker. “At first I said, ‘Leave them where they are.’ It would’ve cost less to just leave them where they were and clean them off.”

In August 2011, after a yearlong struggle over where to put the sculptures, they were plucked — by helicopter — from their concrete bed and replanted along a creek in their birthplace, the Winn family ranch in nearby Wimberley.

Texas State’s conundrum over what to do with these relics highlights an issue that arises when once-celebrated public art begins to wear down or no longer serves its purpose: Should this kind of art be given a second life? Decisions over what to do with art that has outlasted its function can be difficult and expensive. They can also lead to unexpectedly appropriate uses for old art.

University of Texas at Austin art history professor Ned Rifkin compared the morning glories case to the redevelopment trend in old neighborhoods across Austin and other cities. In the neighborhoods, developers have to decide how to deal with architectural integrity and how, or whether, to preserve artistic relics.

Rifkin said today’s distracted viewers of art can forget what made art appealing before culture deemed it dated in form or function.

“I think things of greater age tend to warrant greater attention,” Rifkin said. “While we are a culture that is very youth-oriented, we are also a culture that reveres things that came before our own existence. When things are kind of middle-aged, that’s when we get in trouble.”

In the case of Aquarena’s sculptures, the issue of their survival escalated when community members began calling the university in 2010 and 2011, begging it not to destroy them, Nance said.

Nance said the university would have to pay an additional $600,000 to redesign the restoration plan. When Andrew Winn learned about the situation in the summer of 2011, he suggested an alternative.

Texas State administrators approved Winn’s proposal to take the morning glories home and helped remove and transport the flowers. The university paid $250,000 (none of it from taxpayers) for the helicopter rides. The sculptures were too tall and broad to survive a truck ride. Nance said he thought the price was a reasonable alternative to the expense of leaving them in place, but a fair compromise with community members who didn’t want to see the sculptures destroyed.

Winn, who earned a biology degree from Texas State, said the sculptures would have fit the former Aquarena site’s new function, to educate the public on San Marcos River ecology. Before they aged, the morning glories mimicked the aquifer’s motion.

Rifkin said he understands why university administrators did not think of a reason to let the morning glories remain. He said the idea of cultural dislocation explains why it is easy for people to allow old, but not ancient, objects to fade, eventually into memory.

“These objects kind of have a presence and a life of their own,” Rifkin said. “When they’re taken out of that presence, they lose something. They mean something still, but their mechanism in meaning is different.”

Bob “Daddy-O” Wade is another Texas artist who has seen his work dislocated and relocated. Wade created a 40-foot-long, polyurethane and wire iguana 34 years ago that he intended to dwell in a park near Niagara Falls. When park officials decided the iguana did not belong there, it was moved to the rooftop of the Lone Star Cafe in New York, where it became a landmark in the city, much like the morning glories in San Marcos.

Visitors to the cafe looked up to the iguana — which was adorned in different attire during different seasons — until the venue closed in 1989 and the sculpture was bought by a couple in Virginia. Wade said he never worried about the iguana’s whereabouts until he learned the couple was planning to sell it during their divorce.

“It’s kind of like with your kids,” Wade said. “You never know where your so-called offspring is going to end up, and you just live with it. Then you’ll get a call one day and come to help them out. If they’re going to be destroyed, you pull resources together to stop it.”

Luckily for the iguana, he ended up at the Fort Worth Zoo, where he sits on top of the reptile hospital. The iguana was lifted in 2010 by helicopter to its new location.

Wade has watched several other pieces of his art withstand time and morph to fit new roles and locations.

“The take on these stories is sometimes mythical,” Wade said. “They carry a little history along with them, like those ‘old roadside America’ books and any of those really Americana things that people remember seeing.”

Winn said that like Wade’s iguana, the morning glories will continue to serve aesthetic purposes in their new home. The Winn ranch offers zip line tours of the Hill Country to tourists, and Winn has considered using the sculptures as shade for visitors waiting in line, the same function they served at the Aquarena Springs cable car ride.

But the sculptures will need significant work to function again. The fountain’s pieces need to be cleaned, moved and have rust removed. Winn also plans to remove layers of paint to restore the sculptures’ original translucence.

The details are expensive, and Winn is seeking funds from donors who remember the sculptures in their glory. Nationally renowned art conservationist Robert Alden Marshall has worked on other Buck Winn pieces and said that, although cost is a concern, he’s interested in beginning the restoration as early as 2013.

“A lot of the paint put on prior to the ’70s probably has heavy metals in it and has to be removed and thrown away properly,” Marshall said. “Those are all challenges, but they’re not impossible challenges, and it’s fun. I’d say the biggest challenge is to get the money for it within a certain time frame.”

An additional complication came in April, when a windstorm toppled many of the flowers to the ground, but they do not appear wilted to Winn and other visitors. He said he finds their current state inspirational and perhaps a symbol of something they could be, beyond the shade-providing function he initially envisioned.

“When art is displaced and its location for which it was built has changed, you wonder, then, what is the purpose of this thing?” he said. “For now, I’m not moving them one centimeter until I know what they want to be. They’ll speak to me, and then I’ll know.”


JILLIAN BLISS writes for Reporting Texas, a UT School of Journalism program, where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between Reporting Texas and the San Marcos Mercury.

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8 thoughts on “A second life for Winn’s Aquarena ‘morning glories’

  1. The university should have left the Morning Glories by the river; just cleaned them up and showcase them. I agree with Winn, they wouldn’t detract from the university’s goals for the springs and river to be an educational showcase, but rather enhance them. Sadly, a lack of vision on the part of Texas State Univ.

  2. What a waste of a quarter million dollars by the University. If the plan was to junk them they should have been junked, and if someone wanted to save them it should have been on their own dime.

  3. $600k to redesign the restoration plan? B f-ing S. If we could have a peek at all the decisions made during the “restoration” of Aquarena our heads would explode.

  4. I agree that they should have been left alone. For the comment on a waste of a 1/4 million dollars, perhaps you never stood underneath them and looked up and admired their beauty. Maybe your grandmother didn’t sit underneath them and wait for you to finish waiting in line and then take off on the sky ride. I applaud Buck Winn’s grandson for saving these. I wish more could’ve been saved from the park. I hope they can be restored. They would have made a great piece of art for the university to have at the bottom of the hill. Something!

  5. Bob Phillips is right on. Get the DVD and have an entertaining evening. And while you’re at it, pick up a copy of the Hays County Historical Commission’s DVD examining the life and art of Wimberley’s Buck Winn. It can be bought at their gallery in the county courthouse on San Antonio Street. Believe me, you’ll enjoy it and learn some of our county’s history to boot.

  6. I too have fond memories of the theme park at Aquarena Springs from my early childhood. I remember Ralph, the mermaid shows, the sky tram, the wildlife exhibits, the arcade, and so on.

    But my fond memories – nor yours – make it worth a quarter million dollars of the University’s money.

    I’m happy that they were saved as well….I’m not happy to see that much money being spent on the process. As I said years ago, if Winn wanted to buy them and transport them to his place, it should have been on his own dime.

  7. Bravo. Thank you for saving the “morning glories.” I have fond memories of walking under them for shade. They were (and are) very impressive.

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