Asawa in 1952
Ruth Aiko Asawa
January 27, 1926
|Died||August 5, 2013 (aged 87)|
San Francisco, California, United States
|Education||Black Mountain College|
|Spouse(s)||Albert Lanier (m. 1949–2008, his death)|
Ruth Aiko Asawa (January 27, 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, and several of her fountains are located in public places in San Francisco. 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, immigrants from Japan, operated a truck farm until the Japanese American internment during World War II. Except for Ruth's father, the family was interned at an assembly center hastily set up at the Santa Anita racetrack for much of 1942, after which they were sent to Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. Ruth's 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. Ruth's younger sister, Nancy (Kimiko), was visiting family in Japan when her family was interned. She was unable to return, as the U.S. prevented entry even of American citizens from Japan. Nancy was forced to stay in Japan for the duration of the war. Asawa said about the internment:
I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one. Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the internment, and I like who I am.
From a young age, Asawa expressed an interest in art. As 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 Nacional Autonoma 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 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 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, sculptor Leo Amino, and R. Buckminster Fuller. According to Asawa, the dance courses she took with Merce Cunningham were especially inspirational.
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 sculptures resembles weaving, she did not study weaving nor did she use fiber materials.
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".
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 San Francisco School of the Arts, which 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.
Asawa married architect Albert Lanier in July 1949. The couple had six children: Xavier (1950), Aiko (1950), Hudson (1952), Adam (1956–2003), Addie (1958), and Paul (1959). Albert Lanier died in 2008. The family moved to the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco in 1960, where she was active for many years in the community.
Death and legacy
The Estate of Ruth Asawa was by David Zwirner gallery and her debut exhibition at the gallery, Ruth Asawa, took place from September 13 – October 21, 2017.
Andrea, the mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square (1966)
- Andrea (1966), the mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, California
- Fountain (1973), The Hyatt on Union Square, San Francisco, California
- Fountains (1976), The Buchanan Mall (Nihonmachi), San Francisco, California
- Aurora (1986), the origami-inspired fountain on the San Francisco waterfront.
- The Japanese-American Internment Memorial Sculpture (1994) in San Jose, California
- The Garden of Remembrance (2002) at San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California
- 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
- 2002: Honorary doctorate by San Francisco State University 
- Since 1982, San Francisco has declared February 12 to be "Ruth Asawa Day" 
- Snyder, Robert, producer (1978) Ruth Asawa: On Forms and Growth, Pacific Palisades, CA: Masters and Masterworks Production
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Birth Date: January 24, 1926, Country of Birth: Los Angeles (Norwalk)
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ruth Asawa.|
- Sullivan, Robert. "The Lives They Lived: Ruth Asawa, the subversively 'domestic' artist". The New York Times.
- Scott, Andrea K. "Ruth Asawa Reshapes Art History,' a review of the 2017 show at the David Zwirner Gallery". The New Yorker.
- "Ruth Asawa papers". overview in Stanford catalog.
housed at Stanford University Libraries;
- and the detailed "Guide to the papers". Online Archive of California.
- "Ruth Asawa Bibliography". Stanford University Libraries.
- "Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier". Archives of American Art. Smithsonian. June 2002.
- Watts, Patricia. "Ruth Asawa". Densho Encyclopedia.
- Watts, Patricia. "Appreciation: Ruth Asawa (1926-2013)". art ltd.
- "Ruth Asawa solo exhibition". David Zwirner Gallery.