A visionary’s life intertwined with art

Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa

By Marilyn Chase (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2020, 224 pp., $29.95, hard cover)

Ruth Aiko Asawa, one of the most original and prolific artists of the American 20th century, left behind a stunning legacy when she died at age 87 in 2013. “Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa” is an accessible biography that leans deeply into the controversy of her mixed-race courtship and marriage and opens a window into the mentorships, relationships and critics who helped shape her remarkable career.

Author Marilyn Chase makes it amply clear that Asawa fought arduously for the life she led, which was equal parts artistic creation, parenthood and advocacy for arts education for everyone. The resulting narrative captures Asawa’s passions in her own words (letters, excerpts from her diaries and interviews) or through the correspondences and memories of her family, friends and colleagues, which Chase accessed through the Ruth Asawa archives at the Stanford University Libraries.

The book follows a chronological order: We see Asawa’s early talent developing as she grows up, one of six children raised on her Issei parents’ farm in Norwalk, Calif. The chapters on her early life and traumatizing years of separation from her father (who was picked up at the farm and incarcerated by the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service for years) and imprisonment in Arkansas are solid, though a bit staid.

The book comes to life when 22-year-old Asawa, who has left the concentration camp in Jerome to enter the Milwaukee State Teachers College, faces anti-Japanese prejudice and changes courses, traveling with her friends to the renowned Black Mountain School in North Carolina to study art instead.

Black Mountain School provided the philosophies, discipline and artistic freedom for Asawa to soar, and it is evident that Chase also found the historic papers on this period of her life invigorating. She describes Asawa’s awakening in this radical art-centric environment with sensuous detail and underscores it with stories of Asawa’s dogged work ethic.

Under the stern guidance of painter Josef Albers, dancer Merce Cunningham and architect Buckmeister Fuller, Asawa not only begins to discover her unique visual vocabulary, she also falls madly in love with fellow student Albert Lanier, but winning support from both sets of parents proves to be a slow and delicate process. One of my favorite descriptions of Asawa was penned by Lanier when he broke the news to his parents that he intended to marry Asawa.

The biography is full of the couple’s adventures, from their move to a relatively progressive and artist friendly San Francisco in the 1950s, to the birth and adoption of their six children, and their disciplined commitment to work (Lanier would establish himself as a respected architect, while Asawa became a successful sculptress).

Asawa stoically believed in the education she received at Black Mountain, which led her to enter San Francisco politics by volunteer teaching, advocating and fundraising for decades to build a dedicated public high school for the arts, now known as the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.

In 1966, Asawa began creating major public sculptures, including the mermaid fountain in Ghirardelli Square, the beloved “origami” fountains located in San Francisco’s Japantown, the history of Japanese Americans in San Jose, and the Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State University, while influencing major organizations such as the San Francisco Arts Commission, the deYoung Museum and the California Arts Council by serving on their boards and providing unyielding leadership on the topic of arts education. Asawa did this all while exhibiting drawings, sculptures and paintings in both solo and group shows across the country.

Reading this new biography reminded me of just how far Asawa pushed herself on every realm. I appreciated the primary sources cited in the writing and discovered just how complex and vast her community was.

Readers and fans will line up eagerly on Aug. 13, when the U.S. Postal Service honors Asawa by showcasing her gorgeous and celebrated wire sculptures in a series of new postal stamps; the selvage will include a photograph of Asawa taken by Nat Farbman in 1954 for Life magazine.

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