Known for her delicately woven diaphanous sculptures made of hanging wire that formed into intricate webs of curved shapes that tied into one another or stood on their own, Ruth Asawa led a rich life against the odds in the face of pursuing an art practice. The sculptures she created offer a glimpse into the artist’s sensibility and determined character.
Born on 24 January, 1926 on a farm in Norwalk, (now part of Los Angeles County), to Japanese immigrants, Asawa and her family faced discriminatory laws that banned them from owning land and made earning a living even harder during the years of the Great Depression. At the age of six, Asawa was already working on the farm while also going to school. She recalled the days on the farm that had an influence on her artwork. “I used to sit on the back of the horse-drawn leveler with my bare feet drawing forms in the sand, which later in life became the bulk of my sculptures,” she said.
In February 1942, her father, Umakichi, was arrested and sent by the FBI to the Department of Justice in New Mexico. Five years passed before she saw her father again. Shortly after his arrest, she, her mother and five of her siblings were interned at Santa Anita Race Track, where for six months they lived in horse stables. Asawa recalled, “the smell of horse dung never left the place the entire time we were there." During that time, two Japanese-descent artists who worked at Disney Studio were also interned and offered drawing classes to the children in internment. Asawa spent her time drawing with them.
In September of the same year, Asawa and her family, like many Japanese-descent families during that time in the U.S., were shipped to a permanent camp. In Roher, Arkansas, they were not even allowed to open the window blinds during the day. Nonetheless, Ruth attended school and in her senior year, she became the art editor of the school’s yearbook. They didn’t have access to a camera to photograph the students, so Asawa drew her classmate’s profiles by hand. She completed her high school in 1943.
Receiving a scholarship from the Quakers, Ruth went on to study at Milwaukee State Teachers College in Wisconsin to be an art teacher. However, she was unable to do her student teaching because of the hostility against the Japanese. At the encouragement of her friends, Elaine Schmidt and Ray Johnson, she traveled to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she spent the summer studying art. By obtaining scholarships, Asawa was able to stay at Black Mountain College for another three years. Her teachers included painter Josef Albers, dancer Merce Cunningham and architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller. Asawa was profoundly influenced by the community of artists and educators at the experimental, liberal arts college. While there, she also met her future husband, architect Albert Lanier. Asawa left Black Mountain College to San Francisco where the two married, during a time when interracial marriage was not common; in fact, it was illegal nine months prior to their marriage. The couple built a home together and had six children, two of whom were adopted.
Asawa continued her art practice and worked from her home studio while caring for her children. She began gaining recognition for her sculptures and her art career started kicking off with the support of Black Mountain College alumni in the Bay Area. She had solo and group exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Peridot Gallery in New York, the Oakland Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.
With the rise in social unrest, Asawa entered the public space by competing and winning commissioned projects. Her bare-breasted nursing mermaids in Ghirardelli Square in 1966 was the first public commission work she completed. In 1968, she was appointed to the San Francisco Arts Commission and co-founded the Alvarado Workshop with fellow parent Sally Woodbridge. She became increasingly active in her social and political life and joined other artists in advocating for social change. Fees from her commissions gave her a financial freedom to design larger projects that often required collaboration.
She was also a passionate educator and formulated a teaching philosophy based on her personal experience: “A child can learn something about color, about design, and about observing objects in nature. If you do that, you grow into a greater awareness of things around you. Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader.”
Between 1982 and 2010, Ruth focused her energy on building a public high school for the arts in San Francisco. Her vision was to locate it in the heart of the Civic Center so that it is close to the city's world-class cultural organizations such as the opera, ballet, Jazz Center, the main library and symphony. In 2010 the school was renamed after her and now is the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.
In 2002, Ruth completed her final public commission, the Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State University. Working with landscape artists Isao Ogura and Shigeru Namba, Asawa’s idea was to bring boulders from each of the ten camps where Japanese Americans were interned.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco presented a major retrospective of Ruth’s work in 2006, entitled Contours in the Air. Appreciation of her work reached a larger public; curators and scholars began recognizing her contribution to post-modern American art. In San Francisco, where the artist spent most of her life, Ruth left a remarkable imprint on the fabric of the art community and culture, in a way weaving a thread like she weaves her own sculptures, in the city. The Education Tower of the new de Young Museum building in Golden Gate Park hosts fifteen of her sculptures on permanent display.
In late October, 2008, a partnership came to an end with the death of Asawa’s husband of 59 years, Albert Lanier. Asawa died at home in her sleep at dawn on August 6, 2013, at age 87. Her memorial was held in Golden Gate Park, outside the deYoung Museum. Students from the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts performed in her honor. “Sculpture is like farming,” she once said. “If you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.”
On April 3, 2020, The United States Postal Services honored Ruth Asawa with a series of postal stamps that will be available to the public later in August. During a time of Global pandemic and political unrest, Asawa’s story offers light to fighting injustice and contributing to the change we want to see beyond the lives we live.
Visit www.ruthasawa.com to further learn about her and view her body of work.