Sculptor dons waders, climbs into 'The Claw' to tweak its waterworks

Sculptor Aristides "Aris" Demetrios spent two days last week inspecting "The Claw," which campus machinists and plumbers are restoring. He praised their work, saying the fountain he created in 1964 is "tantalizingly close" to achieving its former glory.

Photos by L.A. Cicero Aristides 'Aris' Demetrios and Dan Choate

Sculptor Aristides 'Aris' Demetrios works in the fountain with Dan Choate, a Stanford machinist, on the project to restore White Memorial Fountain.

As sculptor Aristides "Aris" Demetrios walked across the lawn toward White Memorial Fountain, he paused to take in the sight of the sculpture he created nearly 50 years ago, watching water spray, spatter and splash its glistening green curves.

"That looks gorgeous," said Demetrios, who had driven to campus on Wednesday from his studio in Montecito to meet the Stanford crew that is restoring the fountain and to see if any of its water nozzles needed fine-tuning.

"I can go home now," joked the white-haired sculptor, who was dressed in khakis, sneakers and a blue-and-white striped shirt.

Except that Demetrios had a skilled crew – machinists and plumbers who had gotten to know every nook and cranny of the sculpture since they began restoring it last year – eager to do his every bidding.

"Let's walk around it – all three of us," Demetrios said, addressing Mitch Bousson, whose crew is responsible for maintaining and restoring fountains in the academic areas, and Grant Harrison, a plumber who helped replace all of the hoses, ball valves and water nozzles inside the fountain, better known as MemClaw or The Claw.

As they circled the 16-foot-tall sculpture, Demetrios noticed some dry areas on its copper and bronze surface. Water should coat every part of the sculpture, he said, so some of the water nozzles would need to be adjusted.

"If we adjust that nozzle, we could make the water come out in a fan that would cover that spot with water," he said, pointing to one part of the sculpture.

While the trio walked and talked, a pair of students put down their books, kicked off their sandals and sat on its capstone ledge, their feet dangling in the cool water.

Demetrios, who won a national competition to create a sculpture for White Memorial Plaza, installed the fountain in the spring of 1964.

The sculptor meets his fans

Demetrios arrived at the machine shop Wednesday afternoon bearing gifts. He gave the crew three sheets of silicon bronze and four books by his late mother, the renowned children's book writer and illustrator Virginia Lee Burton. He placed a stack of Katy and the Big Snow and The Little House, which won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1943, on the metal worktable.

Sculptor Aristides 'Aris' Demetrios

Demetrios and the Stanford machinists tuned the water jets, which are an important part of his sculpture.

To welcome the sculptor, the crew had set the table with lunch, a display of the tools they had used to restore the fountain and seven copper access doors – each unique in shape, size and texture – that machinist Dan Choate created to replace those that had gone missing on the fountain over the years.

Demetrios admired the new doors, which the crew had treated with a special solution to create a patina to match the sculpture.

"Have you used heat at all?" he asked. "I use a butane flame. The more heat you use, the quicker it will change color. You could do a piece like this – he pointed to the largest piece on the table – in three minutes."

"Three minutes," said Choate. "Some of those took a couple of days."

"That will be $39.95 for every bit of advice," Demetrios said with a broad smile.

The crew showed off their suitcase MIG (metal inert gas) gun hanging on the shop wall, which gave machinists and sculptor the chance to gab about welding.

"Did you hear that, Mitch," Choate called out to Bousson, Stanford's architectural trades and fleet manager. "Aris said he used 2,000 pounds of MIG wire in the sculpture. "Two thousand pounds."

Demetrios said he was like a 3-year-old with a hammer – who thinks every object can benefit from a little hammering – when he was welding White Memorial Fountain, one of his first sculptures.

"No one had ever fabricated anything like this before," he said. "It has miles of welding."

The Stanford crew also replaced the fountain's entire water system.

When Demetrios met Marc Conway, the lead plumber on the project, he joked: "Where is your medal of honor?"

Day two: Getting up close and personal with The Claw

By mid-morning Thursday, students passing by The Claw in between classes would have seen three men in black waders – one wearing a bright yellow rain slicker with the hood up – sloshing in the pool around the fountain.

Over the next couple hours, machinists Choate and Spiros Vasilakos and sculptor Demetrios, who was wearing a new Stanford cap to protect his head from the hot sun, contemplated the fountain's water sprays from every angle.

They stood close to the fountain to tune individual nozzles, then backed away to see how the adjustments affected the shape and direction – and height or width – of the spray. They signaled plumber Harrison to turn the water pump off and on, off and on. Choate crouched low in the pool to tinker with valves on the manifold.

Their goal was to restore the sprays to their original patterns.

The sculpture was commissioned to honor two Stanford students, brothers in the Class of 1949 who died in separate accidents before graduating. Their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Raymond B. White, donated money for White Memorial Plaza and White Memorial Fountain.

"The tragedy of someone dying so young is that you never know what they might have become," Demetrios said. "The fountain is a metaphor for that. It starts in bronze – which is firm, durable and set in place. It terminates in water patterns that are diaphanous and mutable – the very reverse of anything solid. It speaks to what they might have become. When I told their father that, he burst into tears."

After Demetrios had climbed out of the pool and out of his waders, a group of young men from Sigma Alpha Epsilon approached. Would it be OK if they used the fountain for an annual ritual? They promised to be in and out of the pool in 45 seconds.

To everyone's amusement, the students, all wearing bathing suits, stood in a circle around the fountain, then performed a synchronized swim routine, of sorts, that ended when they dunked their "conductor."

Demetrios returned to the fountain after lunch at the CoHo. Looking at the sculpture, he stood awaiting the arrival of his two assistants – Choate and Vasilakos – and watching the afternoon light illuminate the water dancing on his sculpture.

"It's tantalizingly close," he said.

By then, Demetrios and the crew had decided that The Claw needed a new manifold, one that would have one valve for each water nozzle – as did the original, which had been replaced, perhaps more than once, over the last five decades.

"I want to sculpt the water as I sculpted the metal," Demetrios said. "I can't do that unless I can control each jet."

After a short discussion, sculptor and crew settled on spring break for their next rendezvous at the fountain.

"I'll come up a month before," Demetrios told Bousson. "We'll talk it through and plan it."