Asawa in 1952
Ruth Aiko Asawa|
January 24, 1926
Norwalk, California, United States
August 6, 2013 (aged 87)|
San Francisco, California, United States
|Education||Black Mountain College|
Ruth Aiko Asawa (January 24, 1926 – August 5, 2013) was an American sculptor. Asawa's work is in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Fifteen of her wire sculptures are on permanent display in the tower of San Francisco's de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Asawa was an arts education advocate and the driving force behind the creation of the San Francisco School of the Arts, which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010 in tribute to her.
Early life and education
Ruth Asawa was born in 1926 in Norwalk, California, one of seven children. Her parents were immigrants from Japan, and her father operated a truck farm until the federal government initiated the Japanese American internment during World War II. The family was interned at the assembly center hastily set up at the Santa Anita racetrack for much of 1942, then they were sent away to Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. Asawa's younger sister, Nancy (Kimiko), was visiting family in Japan when her family was interned. She was unable to return, as the US prevented entry even of American citizens from Japan. Nancy was forced to stay in Japan for the duration of the war. Her father, Umakichi Asawa, was arrested by FBI agents in February 1942, and interned at a detention camp in New Mexico. For six months following, the Asawa family did not know if he was alive or dead. Asawa did not see her father for six years. After her father's discovery Asawa and her family were sent to an internment camp, where she studied art.
From a young age, Asawa expressed an interest in art. When Asawa was a child, she was encouraged by her third grade teacher to create her own artwork. As a result, Asawa received first prize in a school arts competition in 1939, for her artwork about what makes someone American.
Following her graduation from the internment center's high school, Asawa attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, intending to become an art teacher. She was prevented from attending college on the California coast, as the war had continued and the zone of her intended college was still declared prohibited to ethnic Japanese, whether or not they were American citizens. Unable to get hired for the requisite practice teaching to complete her degree, she left Wisconsin without a degree. (Wisconsin awarded the degree to her in 1998.)
The summer before her final year in Milwaukee, Asawa traveled to Mexico with her older sister Lois (Masako). Asawa attended an art class at the Universidad de Mexico; among her classmates was Clara Porset, a refugee from Cuba. A friend of artist Josef Albers, Porset told Asawa about Black Mountain College where he was teaching. Asawa recounted:
I was told that it might be difficult for me, with the memories of the war still fresh, to work in a public school. My life might even be in danger. This was a godsend, because it encouraged me to follow my interest in art, and I subsequently enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
From 1946 to 1949, she studied at Black Mountain College with Josef Albers. Asawa learned to use commonplace materials from Albers, and she began experimenting with wire, using a variety of techniques. Like all Black Mountain College students, Asawa took courses across a variety of different art forms, and this interdisciplinary approach helped to shape her artistic practice. She was particularly influenced by the Black Mountain College summer sessions of 1946 and 1948, which featured courses by artist Jacob Lawrence, photography curator and historian Beaumont Newhall, Jean Varda, composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, artist Willem de Kooning, and R. Buckminster Fuller. According to Asawa, the dance courses she took with Merce Cunningham were especially inspirational.
Asawa married architect Albert Lanier in July 1949. The couple had six children: Xavier (1950), Aiko (1950), Hudson (1952), Adam (1956), Addie (1958), and Paul (1959). Albert Lanier died in 2008. Asawa died of natural causes on August 5, 2013, at her San Francisco, California, home at the age of 87.
In the 1950s, Asawa experimented with crocheted wire sculptures of abstract forms that appear as three-dimensional line drawings. She learned the basic technique while in Toluca, Mexico, where villagers used a similar technique to make baskets from galvanized wire. She explained:
I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.
While her technique for making her sculptures resembles weaving, however, Asawa did not study weaving nor did she use fiber materials.
Asawa's wire sculptures brought her prominence in the 1950s, when her work appeared several times in the annual exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and in the 1955 São Paulo Art Biennial.
In 1962, Asawa began experimenting with tied wire sculptures of images rooted in nature that became increasingly geometric and abstract as she continued to work in that form. "Ruth was ahead of her time in understanding how sculptures could function to define and interpret space," said Daniell Cornell, curator of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. "This aspect of her work anticipates much of the installation work that has come to dominate contemporary art."
In 1968, Asawa created her first representational work, a mermaid fountain in Ghirardelli Square on San Francisco’s waterfront. Near Union Square (on Stockton Street, between Post and Sutter Streets), she created a fountain for which she mobilized 200 schoolchildren to mold hundreds of images of the city of San Francisco in dough, which were then cast in iron. Over the years, she went on to design other public fountains and became known in San Francisco as the "fountain lady". Despite her tremendous success, Ruth Asawa is little-known by the people of Japan.
The Estate of Ruth Asawa is represented by David Zwirner gallery. Her debut exhibition with David Zwirner, Ruth Asawa, took place from September 13 - October 21, 2017.
Public service and arts education activism
Asawa had a passionate commitment to and was an ardent advocate for art education as a transformative and empowering experience, especially for children. In 1968, she was appointed to be a member of the San Francisco Arts Commission and began lobbying politicians and charitable foundations to support arts programs that would benefit young children and average San Franciscans. Asawa helped co-found the Alvarado Arts Workshop for school children in 1968. In the early 1970s, this became the model for the Art Commission's CETA/Neighborhood Arts Program using money from the federal funding program, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which became a nationally replicated program employing artists of all disciplines to do public service work for the city. The Alvarado approach worked to integrate the arts and gardening, mirroring Asawa's own upbringing on a farm. Asawa believed in a hands-on experience for children, and followed the approach "learning by doing". Asawa believed in the benefit of children learning from professional artists, something she adopted from learning from practicing artists at Black Mountain College. She believed that classroom teachers could not be expected to teach the arts, on top of all their other responsibilities. Eighty-five percent of the program's budget went toward hiring professional artists and performers for the students to learn from. This was followed up in 1982 by building a public arts high school. The school was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor in 2010. Asawa would go on to serve on the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976, and from 1989-1997 she served as a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
- Ghirardelli Square (1966)
- the Hyatt on Union Square Fountain (1973)
- the Buchanan Mall (Nihonmachi) Fountains (1976)
- Aurora, the origami-inspired fountain on the San Francisco waterfront (1986)
- the Japanese-American Internment Memorial Sculpture in San Jose (1994)
- the Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State University (2002)
- Wired sculptures featured at the David Zwirner Gallery (2017)
- 1968: First Dymaxion Award for Artist/Scientist
- 1974: Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects
- 1990: San Francisco Chamber of Commerce Cyril Magnin Award
- 1993: Honor Award from the Women's Caucus for the Arts
- 1995: Asian American Art Foundations Golden Ring Lifetime Achievement Award
- Snyder, Robert, producer (1978) Ruth Asawa: On Forms and Growth, Pacific Palisades, CA: Masters and Masterworks Production
- Soe, Valerie, and Ruth Asawa directors (2003) Each One Teach One: The Alvarado School Art Program
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- Cornell, Daniell; Asawa, Ruth; M.H. De Young Memorial Museum (2006). Cornell, Daniell; Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, Calif.), eds. The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the air (illustrated ed.). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-520-25045-1. Retrieved March 29, 2017 – via Google Books.
- Ollman, Leach (May 1, 2007). "The Industrious Line". Art in America.
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- Asawa, Ruth (1981-09-01). "Community and Commitment: An Interview with Ruth Asawa". Art Education. 34 (5): 14–17. doi:10.1080/00043125.1981.11654033. ISSN 0004-3125.
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- "The College Died, but the Students Really Lived". The New York Times. March 14, 1992.
- "Life: Black Mountain College", section "Influences". Ruth Asawa. Estate of Ruth Asawa. ruthasawa.com. Retrieved October 13, 2017.
- Molesworth, Helen (2014). Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957. Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. p. 366.
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- Baker, Kenneth (November 18, 2006). "An overlooked sculptor's work weaves its way into our times". San Francisco Chronicle. sfgate.com. Retrieved August 20, 2016.
- "Art: Sculpture", section: "Tied Wire Sculpture". Ruth Asawa. Estate of Ruth Asawa. ruthasawa.com. Retrieved October 13, 2017.
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- Abrahamson, Joan and Sally Woodridge (1973) The Alvarado School Art Community Program. San Francisco: Alvarado School Workshop.
- Bancroft Library (1990) Ruth Asawa, Art, Competence and Citywide Cooperation for San Francisco," in The Arts and the Community Oral History Project. University of California, Berkeley.
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- Cook, Mariana (2000) Couples. Chronicle Books.
- Cornell, Daniell et al. (2006) The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air. University of California Press.
- Cunningham, Imogen (1970) Photographs, Imogen Cunningham. University of Washington Press.
- Dobbs, Stephen (1981) "Community and Commitment: An Interview with Ruth Asawa", in Art Education vol 34 no 5.
- Faul, Patricia et al. (1995) The New Older Woman. Celestial Arts.
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- Hatfield, Zack. "Ruth Asawa: Tending the Metal Garden", NY Daily, New York Review of Books, 21 September 2017
- Hopkins, Henry and Mimi Jacobs (1982) 50 West Coast Artists. Chronicle Books.
- Jepson, Andrea and Sharon Litsky (1976) The Alvarado Experience. Alvarado Art Workshop.
- Laib, Jonathan et al. (2015) Ruth Asawa: Line by Line. Christie's show catalogue.
- Rountree, Cathleen (1999) On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom. Jossey-Bass.
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- Schoettler, Joan (2018) Ruth Asawa: A Sculpting Life (children's book). Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing.
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- Woodridge, Sally (1973) Ruth Asawa’s San Francisco Fountain. San Francisco Museum of Art.
- "The Lives They Lived: Ruth Asawa, the subversively 'domestic' artist", an appreciation in The New York Times by Robert Sullivan
- "Ruth Asawa Reshapes Art History," a review of the 2017 show at the David Zwirner Gallery, by Andrea K. Scott, The New Yorker
- Ruth Asawa papers, housed at Stanford University Libraries (overview in Stanford catalog); and the detailed Guide to the papers, published on the Online Archive of California
- Ruth Asawa Bibliography, online at Stanford University Libraries
- Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, 2002 June 21-Jul 5 from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art
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- Ruth Asawa solo exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery