By Jim McCloskey
For weeks now, I’ve been following the news about a prominent San Francisco fountain that, until recently, seemed on the express train to oblivion.
It’s a tale of a changing cityscape and the desire of a company known for rigidly controlling its visual image to remake a retail space in a way that suited its corporate design sensibilities.
It’s the story of an artist who recently passed away – one who spent her early years confined in
the internment camps the U.S. government used to ease public concerns about the loyalty of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.
Finally, it’s about a quirky, squat, little fountain whose fate hung in the balance for a time – but will, it seems, be around for years to come to cool the air and raise the spirits of people moving around San Francisco’s Union Square.
It’s the sort of story I would ordinarily have written up in a Travelogue, except for the fact that Ruth Azawa, the artist who created the fountain in the 1970s, deserves more attention. Let’s start with the fact that she became known as San Francisco’s “Fountain Lady” despite having an artistic output that ranged far and wide beyond watershapes.
She was student to an eclectic list of artists, including architect Buckminster Fuller, dancer Merce Cunningham, painter Josef Albers and basket-weavers in Mexico. She’d been working as an artist for nearly 20 years before she achieved fame in San Francisco for sculpting the mermaid fountain in a revitalized Ghirardelli Square in the late 1960s.
My favorite of all her works, however, has always been the “Hyatt on Union Square Fountain,” which marched its way into the news lately when Apple took over the adjacent retail space and floated the idea of demolishing or moving what I consider to be Azawa’s public-art masterpiece. The intensely decorated structure is a bronze interpretation of the city that surrounds it, and I love the fact that more than 250 friends and local schoolchildren helped her select and define the imagery. (To see some photographs of the fountain and information on the controversy – since resolved – click here.)
Not long ago, I wrote about the need of the watershaping community to reach out and make certain that culturally significant watershapes were being treated with respect and, ultimately, managed to find recognition in the National Register of Historic Places – status that protects landmarks from careless remodeling and, more often, from thoughtless developers.
I know and love San Francisco as a haven for art and culture, and I appreciate the flexibility with which they’ve approached what in my opinion is the best of Ruth Azawa’s public artworks. Such pieces should be protected and celebrated, and I am encouraged by the fact that one the most prominent of the Fountain Lady’s sculptures will be left alone so future generations can enjoy it.
By not throwing its considerable weight around in this instance, Apple will benefit considerably – and so will the community it aims to serve.