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Artists and patrons of the arts and family and friends gathered in Golden Gate Park last week to share memories of the distinguished San Francisco sculptor Ruth Asawa who died last month at the age of 87.

Here in Santa Rosa her bas-relief friezes depicting Sonoma County's history and its coastal wonders transformed a rather ordinary fountain in Old Courthouse Square into a genuine work of art. And the memories of Asawa are the way she was on the day the fountain was dedicated in 1987. (For the art vocabulary impaired, a frieze is a horizontal band of sculptured scenes — in the case of Asawa's Santa Rosa work, four separate panels surrounding the fountain.)

In her big, white floppy hat and her happiest face, this most interesting of women who had come from a family of field workers, graduated high school in a World War II relocation camp and been denied student teaching in college because of her ethnicity, was in her element.

Surrounded by a crowd of proud children from Burbank School who had created the clay models of the playful sea creatures gamboling under the fountains overflowing water, she had hit her stride as an artist and a teacher. Her spectacular bronze fountains in San Francisco — at Ghirardelli Square and near Union Square — along with her earlier wire sculptures, had brought her international acclaim.

Santa Rosans, proud to have her work in our city, celebrated along with her. Among the schoolchildren-artists who pointed with great pride to their work on the fountain there was a small group of puffed-up adults doing the same.

We were part of a small group of citizens — about a dozen in all — who had been invited to Asawa's home studio in San Francisco's Noe Valley to create historical sites and figures in clay as models for the finished work. We had earned the invitation months earlier when we met with the artist to talk local history and to suggest what the history panels should include.

It was a wonderful day. I remember thinking that I hadn't had so much fun since my kids outgrew Play-Doh, although I was so bad at it that I was relegated to deep background work, like Press Democrat delivery tubes for the rural roads.

Others, more proficient at three-dimensional art, made Shasta daisies for Burbank's garden (Donna Born and Dee Blackman) and significant buildings like London's Wolf House, the gazebo in the McDonald House garden (Leanne Chipchase), a round barn (Mike Panas Sr.), and a Grace Bros. beer wagon. State historian Glenn Burch made a Chinese worker with baskets slung over his shoulders. Dayton Lummis, the first director of the Sonoma County Museum, did such a good job recreating the Carrillo Adobe that we suggested he take a crack at the original. City Councilman Dave Berto made a wine press, but his wife, Nancy, took on the Fred Wiseman 1911 aeroplane that her great uncle, Ben Noonan, had helped to build.

It was a daunting task. "I think it would have been easier to fly it," she said.

The figure of Joseph Henry Downing, the 19th century Healdsburg photographer who captured the county's towns in their earliest years, stands under his cloth drape, with his tripod, courtesy of another photographer, John LeBaron.

Some of us, hearing of Asawa's death made a little pilgrimage to the fountain last month, checking to make sure our noble efforts at art assistance are still part of the whole.

Asawa's death has been a trigger point in recent weeks, with outraged letters to the editor and on-line protests over the City Council's (dare we say pie-in-the-sky?) plans to close the street through the square and remove the fountain. Fears that the Asawa friezes would be sold on eBay or just scrapped occasioned the outcry.

However, a close look at the preliminary environmental impact report on the proposed reunification indicates that, while the fountain itself will go, the panels will be incorporated into the redesign.

I suspect Ruth Asawa would be just fine with that. The hundreds of things to look at should in fact be easier to see, to study and to admire, particularly if they are placed at eye level.

Certainly she would be pleased to know that the contemplation of her good work is no long disturbed by the roar of passing traffic. A little mood music, maestro, please.

Nothing artistic happens without controversy here or anywhere else. (Witness the stew currently being stirred by the Montgomery Village sculptures.) In her obituary last month, the New York Times reported that Asawa's Union Square fountain was threatened several months ago when there were plans to remove it to make room for a plaza outside a new Apple Store. The squawks were so loud and long that both Apple and the city have promised protection.

While Santa Rosans welcomed Asawa's work in the &‘80s — which, as it happens, may be the last work of her notable "Fountain Period" — it all happened because of an earlier controversy.

When the council appropriated $100,000 to fulfill the 1 percent requirement for public art, a committee was appointed to solicit sculpture proposals and to conduct a competition, with a $19,000 prize, for a sculpture on or around the existing fountain on the west side of the bifurcated square.

The winner was Timber Cove artist Bruce Johnson. But when the council members, claiming right of refusal, saw plans for the stone sculpture that was the Johnson entry, they deemed it unsuitable and refused. Johnson sued the city and eventually collected his prize money.

Stuck with the same old unimaginative fountain, the council appointed another "special" committee consisting of council members and members of the redevelopment agency. They went looking for another sculptor and, with great good luck, managed to interest Asawa.

It was double lucky that she agreed. Told that artists and many residents felt the council should have abided by the committee's choice, Asawa replied without hesitation.

"They're right!" she said.