A virtual tour of artist Ruth Asawa’s work


Japanese American Internment Memorial, detail. photo by James Jue. Artwork © 2021 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ruth Asawa working on a looped-wire sculpture in her Noe Valley home. photo by Alan Nomura. Artwork © 2021 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Appreciators can now visit Ruth Asawa’s Bay Area public art installations while listening to immersive interviews on their mobile devices through a free, online audio tour. The digital tour is like having an expert curator and the Asawa’s family in your pocket; exploring who Asawa was as an artist, mother, educator and activist, while explaining the nuances of her art-making process, the genesis of ideas, beloved collaborators, and the hidden clues, jokes and stories ensconced in the work.

Actor Peter Coyote, one of the tour’s narrators, remarks, “(Asawa’s) life was dedicated to service through art. That’s just what she did all day long, from the moment she woke up, while she was taking care of children, while she was gardening — her mind was taking in imagery, form, structure and thinking about ways in which it could be useful. The expression of that intention is visible everywhere in the Bay Area — it’s a lasting footprint.”

This audio tour brings that footprint to life.

The project was produced by Frances Homan Jue, who has created curatorial content for museums and cultural institutions across the nation, in close collaboration with the Estate of Ruth Asawa. The tour includes stops at 11 of her publicly accessible artworks in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and St. Helena and includes never-before-seen images of the work.

Asawa was born in 1926 to Issei farmers in Norwalk, Calif. and incarcerated first at the Santa Anita detention center and then at the Rohwer, Ark. concentration camp for the duration of World War II. After camp, she studied at a teacher’s college until she was denied a degree due to her ancestry. Instead, she enrolled at Black Mountain College from 1946-1949, where she had a profound experience under the guidance and instruction of major art figures and met her future husband, architect Albert Lanier.

Asawa and Lanier raised their six children in San Francisco, while she developed her artistic career and a prolific body of work.

According to Asawa’s daughter Addie Lanier, the public commissions were important for two reasons: Asawa got to experiment with new materials and techniques that she couldn’t afford on her own, and she got to work with other artists and involve her community. Over the period that Asawa did public art, she was also deeply involved in arts education, fundraising mightily for children’s art programs, and helping to found the public school for arts that was eventually named after her.

Grandson Henry Weverka added, “Ruth Asawa’s public artworks throughout the San Francisco Bay Area are diverse and illustrate the artist’s dedication to community involvement and exploration of process.” He pointed out that there are a handful that are directly related to the Japanese American experience, including the Origami Fountains located in San Francisco’s Japantown, and Aurora on the Embarcadero, that mesh traditional Japanese paper folding techniques with lessons learned from Josef Albers at Black Mountain College.

Japanese American Internment Memorial, detail. photo by James Jue. Artwork © 2021 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Her final two public commissions were two memorials dedicated to the World War II mass incarceration of Japanese Americans: the Japanese American Internment Memorial in San Jose, completed in 1994, and the Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State University, which she designed with landscape gardeners Shigeru Namba and Isao Ogura in 2000-2002.

Weverka explained that included in the design of the Japanese American Internment Memorial are the three images of shochikubai (pine, bamboo, plum), which Asawa loosely translated as “bend, don’t break.” She had experienced from the incarceration at age 16 that the ideals of social acceptance and job security was a fantasy — that the only security available to her, and others, was to “do what one wanted to do by choice.” In a 1994 interview, around the time of the Japanese American Internment Memorial dedication, Asawa said, “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.”

I visited Asawa’s bronze bas-relief incarceration memorial, installed directly in front of the San Jose Federal Building, on the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing and followed the audio narration through the largely autobiographical scroll of the Japanese American exper–ience. Asawa turned to her family to help research the phases of Issei immigration, agriculture and farm life, then wove in personal experiences like the FBI arresting her father, who was sent to an Immigration and Naturalization Service camp in New Mexico and her own incarceration with the rest of the family at Rohwer, in Arkansas. While suffused with the grief and turmoil of the forced removal, the monument is also alive — with working mothers carrying babies on their backs, barn swallows and unruly chickens, mochitsuki (mochi-pounding), ofuro (Japanese bath) and other scenes of such heartbreaking beauty and sorrow and care. Each textured layer is masterfully composed so that the stories flow from one to the next.

It is also astonishing to note that Asawa and her artist friends and family created the massive sculpture out of baker’s clay before it was cast and fabricated in bronze. It is a keen reminder from Asawa that art is play as much as it is work, and I highly recommend families doing the audio tour together. My six-year-old son and I visited three of her sculptures for this article, and plan to experience the San Francisco Fountain near Union Square next, then make some baker’s dough ourselves, perfect for Christmas ornaments, using Asawa’s recipe:

4 cups flour
1 cup salt
1-1/2 cups water
Mix dry ingredients before adding water. Knead until smooth. Shape figures. Bake in a low over at 250 to 325 F until hard. When cool, paint and seal.

To listen to the audio tour and learn more about Asawa, visit https://RuthAsawa.com.

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