Local Artist: Ruth Asawa

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Though not a San Francisco native, Ruth Asawa would quickly make a name for herself in the highly artistic city with her incredible wire sculptures. Her work is in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Fifteen of Asawa’s wire sculptures are on permanent display in the tower of San Francisco’s de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, and several of her fountains can be found in public places in San Francisco. She was a strong advocate for arts education and the main force behind the making of the San Francisco School of the Arts, which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010 in honor of her. Behind such an interesting visionary comes an equally interesting upbringing. 

credit: ruthasawa.com

In 1926, Norwalk, California, Ruth Asawa was born the fourth of seven children. Her parents were Japanese immigrants named Umakichi and Haru Asawa that had immigrated to America. Unfortunately, discriminatory laws of the time prohibited the Asawas from owning any property or becoming American citizens. To help support her family Asawa would take on farm jobs even while in school, often working tirelessly in the dirt and soil. At a young age, Asawa started showing an appetite for art. Her third grade teacher encouraged her to be artistic and she ended up winning first prize in a 1939 school arts competition. 

In 1942, Asawa’s father was arrested by the FBI and interned in a detention camp in New Mexico. The rest of the Asawas would be interned in their own detention camp in Santa Ania, California. Asawa would not have contact with her father for the next six years as a result of this separation. On the matter of her internment, 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.” 

credit: ruthasawa.com

The family would ultimately be released from the internment camp in 1943 in Rohwer, Arkansas. There, she would enroll in Milwaukee State Teachers College in the hopes of becoming an art teacher. There, she would unfortunately be bombarded with racism and xenophobia — ultimately forcing her to leave the school in 1946 without a degree. A trip to Mexico with her sister resulted in Asawa meeting Clara Porset, an interior designer from Cuba. Porset was the one who informed Asawa about the avant-garde Black Mountain College, a school which had a history of acting as a refuge for minorities. Asawa decided to attend this school, where she flourished!

Here, she worked closely with her instructors — many of them being successful artists themselves. She would not only meet architect and future husband Albert Lanier, but also define her art style and creative scope. American visual arts magazine ARTnews described how an early painting by Asawa “hints at the rhythmic geometry that would come to define her sculptural practice. The work features abstract, arrow-shaped forms that seem to dance across the red canvas in an inexorable, linear choreography.”

credit: ruthasawa.com

After graduating with Lanier, he and Asawa would move to San Francisco in 1949 and go on to have six children over the span of nine years. It was during this period that Asawa would go on to exhibit her work, gradually gaining steam in the art scene due to her incredible sculptures. On the inspiration behind her stunning works, she had this to say: “My curiosity was aroused by the idea of giving structural form to the images in my drawings. These forms come from observing plants, the spiral shell of a snail, seeing light through insect wings, watching spiders repair their webs in the early morning, and seeing the sun through the droplets of water suspended from the tips of pine needles while watering my garden.” 


ARTnews, How Ruth Asawa’s Pioneering Sculptures Ended Up on U.S. Stamps

Wikipedia, Ruth Asawa