Machinists restoring White Memorial Fountain, aka The Claw, develop an affinity for the campus icon
When they started working on the fountain, Spiros Vaskilakos and Vince D'Amico knew nothing about its history or the sculptor who created it.
American sculptor Aristides "Aris" Demetrios has legions of fans.
For four decades, he has been creating and fabricating sculptures – sensuous fountains, lyrical bronze figures, boldly colored abstracts – admired by thousands of people who see his public works, and cherished by private collectors who buy them for their homes, his website says.
To those thousands of admirers it is time to add two awestruck Stanford machinists – Spiros Vasilakos and Vince D'Amico – who are helping restore White Memorial Fountain, one of the sculptor's earliest works.
The 16-foot-tall bronze and copper fountain – better known as MemClaw or The Claw – stands in the middle of a sunken plaza between Old Union and the Stanford Bookstore, in a shallow pool with blue-tiled walls. Four curved cement benches frame the four corners of the pool.
Vasilakos and D'Amico didn't know anything about the fountain or its maker when they began working on the campus landmark last year.
After he learned Demetrios' name during a recent lunchtime interview in the machine shop, Vasilakos immediately put down his sandwich and googled the sculptor. He opened the sculptor's website, clicked on "biography" and read aloud:
"In 1963, he won his first national sculpture competition when his proposed design was selected for a major fountain commission on the campus of Stanford University (The White Memorial Fountain: MemClaw)."
"Nineteen sixty-three," Vasilakos repeated, marveling at the age of the fountain, which was installed in the spring of 1964.
He clicked on "fountains," one of seven categories on the sculptor's website, including bronze, steel and maquettes.
"This is some cool information here, isn't it?" Vasilakos said, looking at a page with 20 postage-stamp-size color photos of fountains that Demetrios created.
"There it is," he said, pointing to an image of White Memorial Fountain.
With another click, the campus fountain, sunlight brightening its blue-green patina, a veil of water fanning its base, filled the center of his computer screen.
Of course, no Internet search is complete without a Wikipedia stop. The online encyclopedia featured a color photo of another Demetrios sculpture, Wind Harp.
"Wait, Demetrios did Wind Harp?" Vasilakos said. "That's in South City. You can see that from Highway 101. Have you seen it when you're driving up 101?"
Again, he read aloud:
"Wind Harp is a good example of Demetrios' monumental work. Placed on a hilltop in a South San Francisco industrial park in 1967, it is 92 feet tall and made of rusted steel. It's designed to make otherworldly sounds when the wind blows."
Vasilakos rolled his chair away from his desk with a look of wonder on his face. "Wow, wow," he said. "He did the Wind Harp. That's cool."
He quickly scooted back to his desk for a quick detour to Google Maps, and there it was: Wind Harp, a giant instrument firmly planted in a patch of grass.
Still, there were questions to be answered about White Memorial Fountain.
Vasilakos is trying to match the fountain's blue-green patina on the new access doors the crew will make to replace those that have gone missing over the years. The small, odd-shaped pieces of bronze and copper cover openings on the fountain.
White Memorial Fountain in action in 1993. A six-man crew of machinists and plumbers have worked intermittently on the fountain as campus activities allowed.
"I want to make it look like it's been there more than 40 years – there's a trick right there," he said. "I wonder what Aris Demetrios would use."
Vasilakos has applied patina-green antiquing solution to a new access door created by machinist Dan Choate. If that works, the solution will be applied to nine more doors.
Vasilakos and D'Amico are part of a six-man crew of machinists and plumbers who have worked intermittently on the fountain as campus activities allowed. D'Amico's job was to carefully remove 10 access doors – the fountain has 20 in all – for the plumbers. Since then, the crew has replaced water lines, ball valves, hoses and nozzles.
Vasilakos designed and fabricated a stainless steel manifold – replacing one made of brass – that controls the flow of water into more than three-dozen water jets. He plans to design and fabricate a shroud to protect the manifold, which has already sustained some damage from people stepping on it.
D'Amico, who was leaning in the doorway to Vasilakos' office, said working on the fountain has been one of his favorite projects on campus.
Asked why, he said: "Because nothing in this world is anything like that fountain. It started as an idea in someone's mind and was made by hand. Making something by hand takes a long time. I really respect and appreciate that. It's got history. I also appreciate the fact that the sculpture doesn't just sit there. It's a fountain too. I could hardly wait to see everything working again."
D'Amico said he'd love to ask the sculptor some questions: Where did he build the fountain? How many people did it take to install it on campus? How long did it take to install it?
The sculptor reminisces about MemClaw
Photographs taken in 1964 by Stanford photographer Chuck Painter show the arrival of the largest part of the fountain – it was too tall to transport in one piece – on a flatbed truck, and a crane lowering it into place atop three cement posts.
The black-and-white photos, taken in March of that year, show Demetrios in his early 30s sitting inside one of the sculpture's curved arms, welding gun in hand.
"Fifteen years ago, I was in Washington at a party and a young woman asked me: 'Are you the sculptor that did MemClaw?'" he recalled in a recent telephone interview. "I said yes, and she said: 'I was a student on the committee that selected you and I was always impressed by the suede leather welding jacket you wore.' I wish I still had that jacket."
White Memorial Fountain was commissioned to honor two Stanford students, William N. White and John B. White II, brothers in the Class of 1949 who died in separate accidents before they graduated. Their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Raymond B. White, donated money for White Memorial Plaza and for the fountain.
"I submitted three different entries in the competition for the fountain in White Memorial Plaza, and I came in first, second and third," Demetrios said.
Back then, Demetrios was living and working in San Francisco.
"My son – he was about 2 years old then – grew up in the studio," he said. "I made the fountain there, all the spigots and everything. I noticed that some small pieces of bronze were missing in the studio, but I didn't think much of it. I got the fountain in place at Stanford and turned it on. It just shook. And shook. And shook. Finally, all these little pieces of bronze came shooting out the waterspouts. It was like being in the Blitz – we were dodging all these pieces of shrapnel. My son had dropped the pieces into the waterspouts. We just roared with laughter."
Demetrios said he spent a month on campus installing the fountain.
"I was a one-man show then – with my son, of course," he said with a laugh.
The fountain was featured on the cover of the 1965 yearbook, Stanford Quad.
Asked how he felt about the fountain's nickname, Demetrios said: "Everything's a MemSomething there, isn't it? In a way, that's a way for the students to own the fountain. The funny thing is, it was tagged MemClaw within three nanoseconds of it being installed. Someone in the crowd said: 'Yeah, it's MemClaw.'"
When Demetrios was dating a law professor who would become his second wife, he asked her if she had ever seen the fountain in front of the bookstore when she attended Stanford Law School. He said she replied: "You mean MemClaw? I used to sit on one of those benches around the fountain and read my law books."
Demetrios, who returns to campus about every five years, said he had redone the fountain's water system twice, adding and subtracting the number of water jets.
He was very happy to hear that the fountain had a new manifold and plumbing.
Demetrios, whose sculpture studio is located in Montecito, said he'd be happy to return to campus and help the crew.
"If they would like me to come and judge the tuning of the jets," he said, "I would be glad to do so."