NOTE: At the same time we were working on this post, a New York Times article titled “The Japanese-American Sculptor Who, Despite Persecution, Made Her Mark” published on July 20,2020. It’s wonderful and timely to see Ruth Asawa’s work duly celebrated and to ask the question, “What can we learn from this overdue reappraisal?”
Ruth Asawa was born in 1926, the middle child of seven, to first-generation Japanese immigrants, Umakichi and Haru Asawa. In order to make a living, the family worked endless hours on their fruit farm, while Ruth spent any free time she could find drawing. Her family’s life was upended during World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Japanese Americans were interned as a result of fear of potential disloyalty and racism. In 1942, Ruth’s 60-year-old father (who had been living in America for 40 years) was arrested and taken to a camp in New Mexico. Shortly thereafter, Ruth and the rest of her family were forced to gather whatever belongings they could carry and moved to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas alongside 8,000 other Japanese Americans, where they lived in horse stalls.
Along with the trauma of dislocation were more mundane indignities. “There were lines for everything,” Ruth recalled. “I believe half of our time there was spent waiting in line.” The water was also hard to get used to. “It smelled like rotten eggs. The only way it was halfway palatable was to boil it and make tea.” However, it was during this time that Ruth met three other internees who worked as animators for the Walt Disney Studios prior to their internment. The men taught drawing classes to students in the camps and reignited her love of drawing.
Upon graduating from high school and her release from Rohwer in 1943, Ruth Asawa enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College. However, she was unable to do her student teaching in 1946 because of continued prejudice against Japanese Americans. At that time, she found Black Mountain College in North Carolina – known for its experimental, interdisciplinary approach to teaching and its connection to important Bauhaus artists. According to Asawa, “Teachers there were practicing artists, there was no separation between studying, performing the daily chores, and relating to many art forms. I spent three years there and encountered great teachers who gave me enough stimulation to last me for the rest of my life—Josef Albers, painter, Buckminster Fuller, inventor, Max Dehn, the mathematician, and many others. Through them I came to understand the total commitment required if one must be an artist.” She also met architect Albert Lanier, whom she married and started a family with.
After studying materié, or material, lessons under Josef Albers and during a trip to Mexico in 1947, Ruth met a craftsman who showed her how to make wire baskets by looping wire. She developed a new technique and experimented for years, creating her own wire looping method for building sculptures. “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,” Ruth said. “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.” Asawa’s drawing teacher, Ilya Bolotowsky, described her creations as “a shape that was inside and outside at the same time.”
Asawa had a passion not only for her own work, but for bringing art to the community. In 1968 – and with almost no funding – she co-founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop, which integrated parents and professional artists into public schools, offering children the opportunity to be exposed to wider ideas than traditional school might present. At its peak, these workshops existed in 50 public schools in San Francisco, employing artists, musicians, gardeners, and other artisans and parents. Asawa was also integral to the opening of San Francisco’s first public arts high school, which was eventually named the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor. Ruth would go on to serve on the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and became a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
In addition to her wire sculptures, Asawa became known for her public commissions, most notably Andrea in Ghirardelli Square, lovingly referred to by locals as “The Fountain Lady,” and the Hyatt Fountain on Union Square – where she included hundreds of baker’s clay images cast in bronze and sculpted by artist friends, community members, and children.
Over her long life, Ruth Asawa never forgot her days in the Rohwer internment camp or the unexpected friends there who taught her to draw. She knew the power of beauty, even in oppression, and dedicated her career to fostering community and offering children the same freedom she experienced in creativity.
Ruth Asawa passed away in 2013 and her works reside in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the de Young Museum. The United States Postal Service announced that they are creating a stamp booklet featuring her sculptures, and on May 1, 2019, a “Google Doodle” was made to celebrate Asawa.
View Ansel Adams’s photographs documenting the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California and the Japanese-Americans interned there during World War II here.