Ruth Asawa's San Francisco Fountain
Sculptor Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) was commissioned to design and build a fountain for the plaza in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Union Square in 1972, and her signature San Francisco work has been there ever since, having migrated only a few feet during the recent construction of the new Apple store. The fountain survived the renovation due to popular demand and public outcry when the tech giant’s initial reconstruction plans threatened it.
Despite its prominent placement, the work maintains a relatively low profile, probably going unnoticed by most tourists and other passersby, the reason being that unless you take a close look at it, it looks like kind of an eyesore, a lumpy, uneven slate gray mound, only really pretty at night with its interior lights causing the spouting water to glow and shimmer. Close up, however, you see all the amazing detail, scenes of San Francisco landmarks and the city’s history, somehow colorfully presented even in its monochromatic medium, and the work is really quite beautiful.
It’s a piece of history in itself, too, Asawa having recruited local school children as her collaborators, and sculpted the details from bread forms molded and set by the kids, a lasting testament to the act of creating community through art.
Preceded by Andrea's Fountain with its nursing mermaid—installed in Ghiradelli Square in 1968—Asawa's San Francisco Fountain was one of several created by the artist for locations around the city. She created the Nihonmachi Fountains for the Buchanan Mall in Japantown in 1976 and the Aurora Fountain for the Bayside Plaza along the Embarcadero waterfront in1986. Her work became so iconic a part of the San Francisco landscape that Asawa was known locally as "The Fountain Lady."
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