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LeBaron: Remembering Ruth Asawa's gift to Sonoma County history

  • PC: Ruth Asawa expresses ideas to Development Commission while touring fountain area in Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square. (6/27/1984, Otto Greule)

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.

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