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THE FOUNTAIN : In Santa Barbara by the Sea, Even Symbolic Dolphins Can Cause a Lot of Trouble

March 16, 1986|MICHAEL FESSIER JR. | Michael Fessier Jr.'s "In Search of the Chicken Cackler and Other Unlikely Missions" (Capra Press) is due out this fall.

TO COMMEMORATE THE BICENTENNIAL

OF THE CITY OF SANTA BARBARA

1782 - 1982

SHEILA LODGE, MAYOR

CONSTRUCTED WITH PUBLIC DONATIONS

BY THE TRUST FOR PRESERVATION

OF THE SANTA BARBARA WATERFRONT

THOMAS A. LONG, PRESIDENT

BENEFACTORS

EMILY W. DEWARE, MAJOR DONOR

ELSIE C. MILES / CITY OF SANTA BARBARA

TRUST FOR PRESERVATION

OF THE SANTA BARBARA WATERFRONT

THE BICENTENNIAL FRIENDSHIP FOUNTAIN

ERECTED 1985

ARCHITECT: GILBERT GARCIA

SCULPTOR: JAMES BOTTOMS

I heard of the dolphins' appearance, swarms of them, as many as a hundred, from several people. It was a lovely story, a little goofy maybe, like nearly everything connected to the fountain, but nice, and when the people told it their faces glowed. "No one has ever seen bottle-nosed dolphins this far north," they said.

No one?

"No one I ever talked to," one woman said.

After a while it occurred to me that they were talking about a miracle. No one said in so many words that these particular dolphins had heard that the fountain was in trouble and so had come to lend their support, but that was the implication.

As happened so many times over the fountain's often fantastic five-year history, one was asked to take a position: Do you believe? Do you believe that while Victor (Sky Eagle) Lopez was conducting the site-blessing ceremonies there at the entrance to Stearns Wharf, as he held to his lips the abalone shell containing the smoldering purple sage and blew the smoke to the north and east, the south and west, that there in the Santa Barbara noonday sun, with no clouds in the sky and with the air as ocean-scrubbed clean as on the day of creation, so clear that Santa Cruz Island looked close enough to touch , that as Victor Lopez was invoking "Father Sun and Mother Moon" and asking that all animals be blessed, "the ant to the elephant," and as he called upon the gods of Chumash Indian ancestors, the Stone Age oceangoing people who had held this turf for 10,000 years and exist now only as small clay figures tending tiny painted fires up at the Natural History Museum, that as he called upon all of that while bicyclists, skateboarders and runners cruised by and tourists smiled, that at just that moment, a few hundred yards off the beach, pods of good-time dolphins were popping their shiny smiling beaks out of the water. Supporters? "Go Dolphin Fountain!"

Do you believe that?

It was supposed to be just a fountain, a little something of cement or stone that sprayed or bubbled or, like the lion faces downtown in the patio of the Acapulco restaurant, spat.

How complicated could a fountain be? In Santa Barbara, the answer is: very. It is a careful city, with a large investment in the status quo, a city where any change, no matter how minor, is vigorously monitored and discussed by an alert public and their elected officials. Known as the Friendship Fountain in its inception, it could not have seemed more innocuous. It would replace a small flower garden, 20 by 25 feet, that sat just in back of the parking kiosk at Stearns Wharf. No one then could have known of the fountain's curious power to provoke emotion and controversy. "It has a history of decision-making which for convolution, irony and betrayal rivals any medieval chronicle of a 1,000-year war," wrote Santa Barbara News-Press reporter Linda Egan at one point.

Decision-making is the key phrase here. The fountain had to take a specific form that would inevitably symbolize some value or belief--historical, mythical, aesthetic--and all the city of 74,000 had to decide was what that form would be. So what seemed so simple was in fact extraordinarily difficult, bringing into collision rich and poor, assorted ethnic identities and a great array of differing beliefs as opposing factions battled back and forth across the tiny plot of land like religious armies of the Middle Ages. Something important was at stake.

The Friendship Fountain was proposed in 1980 by a small, intense widow, Louise Lowry Davis, who saw the fountain as a kind of miniature Statue of Liberty, opening its arms to tourists far from home. Pledging $10,000 toward its construction, she asked only that it carry this pleasant salutation: "May All Your Days Be Filled With Loving Moments, Gentle Smiles and the Joy of Friendship." In this fountain, standing in what looked like a giant cement champagne glass, would be a "young, thinly clad woman" holding a palm frond. Some insisted she was meant to be St. Barbara herself, yet since St. Barbara is not a saint, at least not a church-authenticated one, and religion itself is a bit dicey in our spiritually tangled times, an element of ambiguity was purposely built in. "It could be seen as St. Barbara," Richard Taylor, the architect who designed her, said. "On the other hand, she could as well have been a UC Santa Barbara co-ed." Taylor is a South Carolinian, and he laughs in an affable Southern sort of way when he tells you this.

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