Artist and activist Ruth Asawa dies at 87


RENOWN SCULPTRESS — Noted sculptor Ruth Asawa (below) created many public works of art, including the Origami Fountains that line San Francisco Japantown’s Buchanan Mall (left). file photo

Ruth Asawa. file photo
Ruth Asawa. file photo

Ruth Aiko Asawa, an American artist acclaimed for her biomorphic wire sculptures and public art installations, who served as a tireless activist and mentor for arts education, died at her home in San Francisco on Aug. 5, 2013. She was 87.

At the core of everything she made was the desire to form beautiful things with the human hand. Asawa is best known for her filagreed wire sculptures that form a visual vocabulary of looped and tied open forms, but worked with equal delight and elegance on her prints, drawings and bronze sculpture.

Her work, which is in museums around the world, has been the subjects of numerous exhibits, including several major solo retrospectives at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1973), the Fresno Art Museum (1978 and 2001), the Oakland Museum (2002), the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum (2006), and the Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, 2007).

In 2005, Asawa donated 15 of her wire sculptures to the de Young Museum for its inaugural re-opening, where they are now on permanent display in the lobby of the education tower. “Every visitor to the museum — and that includes numerous (museum) directors, curators and critics — have been taken with the sheer beauty of that installation,” said Timothy Anglin Burgard, curator of American art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “She is now universally recognized as an American postwar modernist, not simply as a Bay Area artist.”

A woman who saw beauty everywhere, Asawa believed art belonged to the community, and she became one of the foremost public sculptors in San Francisco. “The irreplaceable Ruth Asawa was not only an important modernist sculptor and public artist, she was also a pivotal figure in advancing the approach to art-making that has become known as ‘social practice,’” said Mark Dean Johnson, gallery director at San Francisco State University. “She approached the ‘city as her studio.’”

One of her most beloved sculptures is “Andrea,” the mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square (1966), which was created with the help of more than 200 San Francisco schoolchildren, who molded figures from salt dough that then were cast in bronze. Other well-known installations are the Hyatt on Union Square Fountain (1973); “Aurora:” the Origami Fountain on the San Francisco waterfront (1986) and the Nihonmachi Buchanan Mall Fountains (1976).

RENOWN SCULPTRESS — Noted sculptor Ruth Asawa (below) created many public works of art, including the Origami Fountains that line San Francisco Japantown’s Buchanan Mall (left). file photo
RENOWN SCULPTRESS — Noted sculptor Ruth Asawa (below) created many public works of art, including the Origami Fountains that line San Francisco Japantown’s Buchanan Mall (left). file photo

“We’ve got a classical Ruth Asawa piece right here in Japantown. You can’t help but appreciate the beauty of the fountains and you can feel her presence everywhere,” said Kimochi Inc. Executive Director Steve Nakajo, who acknowledged the significance of visiting Asawa’s mermaid fountain as a child, knowing it was made by a famous Nisei and displayed in neighborhoods of San Francisco that wasn’t specific “Japanese.”

Two of her last public installations were the cast-bronze relief Japanese American Internment Memorial in San Jose, California (1994) and the Garden of Remembrance (2002) at San Francisco State University, both of which honor the World War II mass incarceration experience, a subject that Asawa embraced late in her career as part of her own historical experience.

Born on Jan. 24, 1926 in rural Norwalk, Calif., Ruth Asawa was the fourth of seven siblings. Her Issei parents, Umakichi and Haru Asawa, were truck farmers who grew strawberries, carrots, green onions and tomatoes. Although she had hoped to attend a prominent art school in Los Angeles, World War II and the signing of Executive Order 9066 changed everything.

She was only 16 when her father was arrested by FBI agents and separated from his family for the following six years. In April of 1942, her mother had to close the farm when she and the children were forcibly removed from their home and imprisoned along with 120,000 other people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. For Asawa, the incarceration was the first step on a journey to a world of art that profoundly changed who she was and what she thought was possible in life. Asawa not only absorbed lessons in aesthetics and artistic technique from her time in camp (she first learned weaving as a volunteer camouflage net maker, and picked up the sumi brush during art classes), she flourished. She became the art editor of the Rohwer High School yearbook and graduated in 1943.

From camp, she was admitted to the Milwaukee State Teachers College on a Quaker scholarship, where she studied drawing, painting, printmaking and jewelry. To support her  education, Asawa found work as a domestic servant and in a tanning factory. In 1945, she and her sister Lois traveled to Mexico City to study Spanish and Mexican art. When she was discouraged from becoming a teacher due to anti-Japanese prejudices, she decided instead to enroll at the Black Mountain experimental art school in North Carolina and spent three transformative years under the guidance of the most brilliant artists of her generation, such as painter Josef Albers, dancer Merce Cunningham and architect Buckminster Fuller.

In 1947, Asawa returned to Mexico on another sponsored trip, where she observed indigenous artists making wire egg baskets, which inspired her to experiment with coiling and crocheting enormous, organic forms out of the same material. At times, she would begin by suspending the piece from the ceiling and working her way down and inside the sculpture itself.

At Black Mountain College, she also met a talented architectural student named Albert Lanier and fell in love. The open community at Black Mountain gave them the self-confidence and courage to pursue careers as artists and brave the untested waters of a mixed-race marriage. In 1949, Asawa moved to San Francisco and married Lanier, who would establish himself as an architect and frequent creative collaborator of his wife.
Throughout the 1950s, Asawa experimented with various media including origami, welding, and clay, while honing her innovative crocheted wire forms. She began exhibiting in solo and group shows in 1953.

Asawa’s legacy extends far beyond her artwork. In addition to a full career, her marriage never floundered, and the couple raised six children. Their home and surrounding gardens in Noe Valley was a vibrant, community meeting place for artists, misfits, neighborhood activists, and friends for more than 50 years. Inspired by her own children’s hunger for creative instruction, she became a major force in founding public arts education for San Francisco children. “The coloring book was never enough for Ruth,” says long-time friend and artistic director of the San Francisco Unified School District, Susan Stauter. “She was the first to get up to the microphone or attend a meeting, and believed that art was an essential part of the education of human beings.”

In 1968, Asawa and another public school parent, Sally Woodbridge, founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop with a mere $50 grant for clay. At its peak, the workshop connected professional artists to classrooms in 50 public schools, including to the newly formed Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program, which began in 1973. She enabled artists to be hired through the 1973 federal CETA program (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act), helped found SCRAP, an art material recycling program for teachers and artists in 1976, and fearlessly defended the preservation of murals, inter-generational workshops and the vital importance of gardens.

Asawa was the driving force behind the establishment of the public high school for the arts, and in 2010, the city’s Board of Education voted unanimously to honor the visionary artist and activist by changing the school’s name to the Ruth Asawa San Francisco High School for the Arts.

“She touched hundreds and hundreds of schoolchildren in San Francisco,” said School Board Commissioner Emily Murase. “As a commitment to her legacy, Ruth’s long-time friend Commissioner Jill Wynns and I have a long term goal to fulfill a promise the school district made to bring the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts to the Civic Center,” thereby extending her legacy of integrating arts education into civic life.

Asawa was a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and served on boards for the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Conservatory Theater. She received honorary doctorates from the San Francisco Art Institute, California College of the Arts and San Francisco State University.

She is survived by five of her six children — Xavier Lanier, Aiko Cuneo, Hudson Lanier, Paul Lanier and Addie Lanier — and 10 grandchildren, all of whom live in or near San Francisco. She was predeceased by son, Adam Lanier. But she was loved by so many.

“Nobody could limit Ruth and her vision. Not the government during internment, not the system when they wanted to cut the arts. One only need to travel through San Francisco,” said Stauter, “from the Embarcadero to Japantown to Hyatt Fountain, to see that she left her mark all through the most beautiful city in the world.”

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