Ruth Asawa

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Ruth Asawa
Imogen Cunningham - Ruth Asawa.jpg
Asawa in 1952
Ruth Aiko Asawa[1]

(1926-01-27)January 27, 1926
Norwalk, California, United States[1]
DiedAugust 5, 2013(2013-08-05) (aged 87)
San Francisco, California, United States
EducationBlack Mountain College
Known forSculpture
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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Ruth Asawa was born in 1926 in Norwalk, California[5], one of seven children.[6] Her parents, immigrants from Japan, operated a truck farm until the Japanese American internment during World War II.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9][10] 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.[11]

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.[6]

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.)[12]

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.[9] 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.[13]

From 1946 to 1949, she studied at Black Mountain College with Josef Albers.[14] Asawa learned to use commonplace materials from Albers and began experimenting with wire, using a variety of techniques.[15] 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.[16]


Ruth Asawa's sculptures displayed at the David Zwirner gallery in NYC.

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.[10]

While her technique for making sculptures resembles weaving, she did not study weaving nor did she use fiber materials.[17]

Asawa's wire sculptures brought her prominence in the 1950s, when her work appeared several times in the Whitney Biennial and in the 1955 São Paulo Art Biennial.[18]

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.[19] "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."[20]

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.[10] Over the years, she went on to design other public fountains and became known in San Francisco as the "fountain lady".[10]

Public service and arts education activism[edit]

Asawa had a passionate commitment to and was an ardent advocate for art education as a transformative and empowering experience, especially for children.[21] In 1968, she was appointed to be a member of the San Francisco Arts Commission[22] and began lobbying politicians and charitable foundations to support arts programs that would benefit young children and average San Franciscans.[23] Asawa helped co-found the Alvarado Arts Workshop for school children in 1968.[23] 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.[13] This was followed up in 1982 by building a public arts high school, the San Francisco School of the Arts,[2] which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor in 2010.[24] Asawa would go on to serve on the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976,[22] and from 1989-1997 she served as a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.[22]

Personal life[edit]

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).[6] Albert Lanier died in 2008.[6] The family moved to the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco in 1960, where she was active for many years in the community.[3]

Death and legacy[edit]

Asawa died of natural causes on August 5, 2013, at her San Francisco home at the age of 87.[6][25]

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.[26]

A Google Doodle for May 1, 2019, the first day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, was made to celebrate Ruth Asawa.[27]

Selected works[edit]

  • Andrea (1966), the mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, California[3]
  • 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.[3]
  • The Japanese-American Internment Memorial Sculpture (1994) in San Jose, California[3]
  • 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 [25]
  • Since 1982, San Francisco has declared February 12 to be "Ruth Asawa Day" [27]


  • 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, San Francisco: Alvarado Arts Program.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "About Ruth Asawa". Archived from the original on October 24, 2017. Retrieved October 13, 2017. Birth Date: January 24, 1926, Country of Birth: Los Angeles (Norwalk)
  2. ^ a b RELEASE: RUTH ASAWA Archived August 23, 2013, at the Wayback Machine Christie's; April 2, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e Anders, Corrie M (November 2005) "Ruth Asawa's Sculptures on Prominent Display in De Young." Archived June 29, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Noe Valley Voice. (Retrieved June 21, 2018.)
  4. ^ Tucker, Jill (February 24, 2010). "S.F. school board votes to send pink out slips" Archived February 4, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved October 13, 2017.
  5. ^ Phaidon Editors (2019). Great women artists. Phaidon Press. p. 41. ISBN 0714878774.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  6. ^ a b c d e Martin, Douglas (August 17, 2013). "Ruth Asawa, an Artist Who Wove Wire, Dies at 87". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on August 18, 2013. Retrieved October 17, 2017.
  7. ^ Cornell, Daniell; Asawa, Ruth l government initiated; 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. Archived from the original on March 29, 2017. Retrieved March 29, 2017 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ Ollman, Leach (May 1, 2007). "The Industrious Line". Art in America.
  9. ^ a b Quinn, Bridget (2017). Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History, in That Order. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. pp. 135–144. ISBN 9781452152363. OCLC 951710657.
  10. ^ a b c d Martin, Douglas (August 17, 2013). "Ruth Asawa, an Artist Who Wove Wire, Dies at 87". The New York Times / International Herald Tribune (online) (Global ed.). The New York Times Company. Archived from the original on August 18, 2013. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  11. ^ Editors (May 1, 2019) "Who Is Ruth Asawa, the Artist in Today’s Google Doodle?" Archived May 1, 2019, at the Wayback Machine New York Times. (Retrieved May 1, 2019.)
  12. ^ Auer, James (December 18, 1998). "Artist's return remedies a postwar injustice". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. NewsBank document ID 0EB82C32E269DCB3.
  13. ^ a b Asawa, Ruth; Dobbs, Stephen (1981). "Community and Commitment: An Interview with Ruth Asawa". Art Education. 34 (5): 14–17. doi:10.2307/3192471. JSTOR 3192471.
  14. ^ "The College Died, but the Students Really Lived". The New York Times. March 14, 1992.
  15. ^ "Life: Black Mountain College Archived October 14, 2017, at the Wayback Machine", section "Influences". Ruth Asawa. Estate of Ruth Asawa. Retrieved October 13, 2017.
  16. ^ Molesworth, Helen (2014). Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957. Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. p. 366.
  17. ^ Krystal R. Hauser (2016). "8". In Langa, Helen; Wisotzki, Paula (eds.). American Women Artists, 1935-1970: Gender, Culture, and Politics. Surrey, England: Ashgate. p. 147. ISBN 978-1-4724-3282-7.
  18. ^ Baker, Kenneth (November 18, 2006). "An overlooked sculptor's work weaves its way into our times". San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on August 11, 2016. Retrieved August 20, 2016.
  19. ^ "Art: Sculpture Archived October 13, 2017, at the Wayback Machine", section: "Tied Wire Sculpture". Ruth Asawa. Estate of Ruth Asawa. Retrieved October 13, 2017.
  20. ^ Cooper, Ashton (November 26, 2013). "Ruth Asawa's Late, Meteoric Rise From Obscurity" Archived April 30, 2014, at the Wayback Machine. BlouinArtinfo. Retrieved December 6, 2014.
  21. ^ "California sculptor Ruth Asawa dies". August 6, 2013. Archived from the original on April 26, 2014. Retrieved August 2, 2014.
  22. ^ a b c "Archived copy". Archived from the original on March 7, 2015. Retrieved August 2, 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  23. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on February 18, 2015. Retrieved August 2, 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  24. ^ Romney, Lee (August 6, 2013), "Ruth Asawa, artist known for intricate wire sculptures, dies at 87", The Los Angeles Times, archived from the original on August 7, 2013, retrieved August 7, 2013
  25. ^ a b Baker, Kenneth (August 6, 2013), "California sculptor Ruth Asawa dies", San Francisco Chronicle, archived from the original on August 6, 2013, retrieved August 6, 2013
  26. ^ "Ruth Asawa | David Zwirner". David Zwirner. Archived from the original on February 9, 2018. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
  27. ^ a b "Celebrating Ruth Asawa". Google. May 1, 2019. Archived from the original on May 1, 2019. Retrieved May 1, 2019.
  28. ^ "Each One Teach One. The Alvarado School Art Program. by Valerie Soe and Ruth Asawa in SearchWorks catalog". Retrieved March 5, 2019.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.
  • Bell, Tiffany and Robert Storr (2017) Ruth Asawa. David Zwirner Books: New York.
  • 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.
  • D'Aquino, Andrea (2019) A Life Made by Hand: Ruth Asawa (children's book). Princeton Architectural 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.
  • Harris, Mary Emma (1987) The Arts at Black Mountain College. MIT Press.
  • Hatfield, Zack. "Ruth Asawa: Tending the Metal Garden", NY Daily, New York Review of Books, September 21, 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.
  • Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer (1992) American Women Sculptors. G.K. Hall.
  • San Francisco Museum of Art. (1973) Ruth Asawa: A Retrospective View. San Francisco Museum of Art.
  • Schatz, Howard (1992) Gifted Woman. Pacific Photographic Press.
  • Schoettler, Joan (2018) Ruth Asawa: A Sculpting Life (children's book). Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing.
  • Villa, Carlos et al. (1994) Worlds in Collision: Dialogues on Multicultural Art Issues. San Francisco Art Institute.
  • Woodridge, Sally (1973) Ruth Asawa’s San Francisco Fountain. San Francisco Museum of Art.

External links[edit]