Ruth Asawa

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Ruth Asawa
San Francisco, California, U.S.
EducationBlack Mountain College
Known forSculpture
Albert Lanier
(m. 1949; died 2008)

Ruth Aiko Asawa (January 24, 1926 – August 5, 2013) was an American modernist artist known primarily for her abstract looped-wire sculptures inspired by natural and organic forms. In addition to her three-dimensional work, Asawa created an extensive body of works on paper, including abstract and figurative drawings and prints influenced by nature, particularly flowers and plants, and her immediate surroundings.[1]

Born in Norwalk, California in 1926, Asawa was the fourth of seven children born to Japanese immigrants. She grew up on a truck farm. In 1942, her family was separated when they were sent to different Japanese internment camps as a result of isolation policies for Japanese-Americans mandated by the U.S. government during World War II.[1] At Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas, Asawa learned drawing from illustrators interned at the camp. In 1943, she was able to leave the camp to attend Milwaukee State Teachers College, where she hoped to become a teacher but was unable to complete her studies because her Japanese ancestry prevented her from obtaining a teaching position in Wisconsin.[1]

In 1946, Asawa joined the avant-garde artistic community at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she studied under the influential German-American Bauhaus painter and color theorist Josef Albers, as well as the American architect and designer Buckminster Fuller. At Black Mountain College, Asawa began making looped-wire sculptures inspired by basket crocheting technique she learned in 1947 during a trip to Mexico.[1] In 1955, she held her first exhibition in New York and by the early 1960s, she had achieved commercial and critical success and became an advocate for public art according to her belief of "art for everyone".[1] She was the driving force behind the creation of the San Francisco School of the Arts, which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010.[2]

Her work is featured in collections at the

Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.[3] 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 are located in public places in San Francisco.[4] In 2020, the U.S. Postal Service honored her work by producing a series of ten stamps that commemorate her well-known wire sculptures.[5][6]

Early life and education

Ruth Aiko Asawa was born in 1926 in

Japanese American internment during World War II.[10] Except for Ruth's father, the family was interned at an assembly center hastily set up at the Santa Anita racetrack for much of 1942, after which they were sent to Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas.[11] Ruth's father, Umakichi Asawa, was arrested by FBI agents in February 1942 and interned at a detention camp in New Mexico. For six months following, the Asawa family did not know if he was alive or dead. Asawa did not see her father for six years.[12][13] Ruth's younger sister, Nancy (Kimiko), was visiting family in Japan when her family was interned. She was unable to return, as the U.S. prevented entry even of American citizens from Japan. Nancy was forced to stay in Japan for the duration of the war. Asawa said about the internment:

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.[14]

Asawa became interested in art at an early age. As a child, she was encouraged by her third grade teacher to create her own artwork. As a result, Asawa received first prize in a school arts competition in 1939, for her artwork about what makes someone American.[9]

Following her graduation from the internment center's high school, Asawa attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, intending to become an art teacher. She was prevented from attending college on the California coast, as the war had continued and the zone of her intended college was still declared prohibited to ethnic Japanese, whether or not they were American citizens. Unable to get hired for the requisite practice teaching to complete her degree, she left Wisconsin without a degree. (Wisconsin awarded the degree to her in 1998.)[15] Asawa recounted an experience when stopping in Missouri to use the restroom when her and her sister didn't know which bathroom to use. There was a colored and a white toilet at the bus stop and because of the racial discrimination at the time they chose to use the colored toilet. Once at Black Mountain there was more equality for her and other minority students including other Asian Americans and African Americans. While on campus they were equals but in town the reality of racism in America was evident. This led to a direct sense of social consciousness in Asawa's sculptures and an intimacy influenced by the adversity her family experienced as a minority in America.[16]

The summer before her final year in Milwaukee, Asawa traveled to Mexico with her older sister Lois (Masako). Asawa attended an art class at the

R. Buckminster Fuller. According to Asawa, the dance courses she took with Merce Cunningham were especially inspirational.[22] In one class that included fellow student Rauschenberg Asawa reported that they ran down a large hill like it was a dance with flaming torches blasting Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In contrast, Asawa described her experiences studying under Josef Albers as more formalist and what other students described as Fascist in demeanor and did not consider the feelings of his students in his teachings. She quoted him as saying "If you want to express yourself do that on your own time. Don't do it in my class." He preferred to teach exploration and discover through design rather than the regurgitated freeloaded knowledge taught by other academics. Asawa connected with this approach because of her family's cultural background and what she describes as an intolerance for emotion.[23]


In the 1950s, while a student at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, Asawa made a series of crocheted wire sculptures in various abstract forms. Asawa felt that her and her fellow students were ahead of the administration with developing their own form of modernism in sculpture, constantly trying new things. She began with basket designs, and later explored biomorphic forms that hung from the ceiling. She learned the wire-crocheting technique while on a trip to visit Josef Albers while he was on sabbatical in 1947

Toluca, Mexico
, where villagers used a similar technique to make baskets from galvanized wire. She explained:

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. 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.[13]

After her trip to Mexico, Asawa's drawing teacher, Ilya Bolotowsky, noted that her interest in conventional drawing had been replaced by a fascination with using wire as a way of drawing in space.[21] Her looped-wire sculptures explore the relationship of interior and exterior volumes, creating, as she put it, "a shape that was inside and outside at the same time."[24] They have been described as embodying various material states: interior and exterior, line and volume, past and future.[25] Asawa said "It was in 1946 when I thought I was modern. But now it’s 2002 and you can’t be modern forever." while she was developing her materiality and techniques, experimenting with manual means of visual communications. Experimentation was key in finding her visual identity as an artist.[23] While her technique for making sculptures resembles weaving, she did not study weaving, nor did she use fiber materials.[26] Materials mattered. As a poor college student Asawa embraced inexpensive found objects such as rocks, leaves and sticks because they neither had the funds or access to good paper. Proximity and discovery was their resource.[23]

Untitled (S.449, Hanging Three Lobed Form with Stripes and Two Interior Spheres) (c. 1958) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2022

Asawa's wire sculptures brought her prominence in the 1950s, when her work appeared several times in the Whitney Biennial, in a 1954 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and in the 1955 São Paulo Art Biennial.[27][28]

In 1962, Asawa began experimenting with tied wire sculptures of branching forms rooted in nature, which became increasingly geometric and abstract as she continued to work in that form.[29] With these pieces, she sometimes treated the wire by galvanizing it. She also experimented with electroplating, running the electric current in the "wrong" direction in order to create textural effects.[30] "Ruth was ahead of her time in understanding how sculptures could function to define and interpret space," said Daniell Cornell, curator of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. "This aspect of her work anticipates much of the installation work that has come to dominate contemporary art."[31]

Asawa participated in the Tamarind Lithography Workshop Fellowship in Los Angeles in 1965 as an artist. Collaborating with the seven printmakers at the workshop, she produced fifty-two lithographs of friends, family (including her parents, Umakichi and Haru), natural objects, and plants.[32]

In the 1960s, Asawa began receiving commissions for large-scale sculptures in public and commercial spaces in San Francisco and other cities.[33] Awasa installed her first public sculpture, Andrea (1968), after dark in Ghirardelli Square, hoping to create the impression that it had always been there.[34] The sculpture depicts two cast bronze mermaids in a fountain, one nursing a merbaby, splashing among sea turtles and frogs.[34] The artwork generated much controversy over aesthetics, feminism, and public art upon installation.[35] Lawrence Halprin, the landscape architect who designed the waterfront space, described the sculpture as a suburban lawn ornament and demanded the artwork's removal.[35] Asawa countered: "For the old, it would bring back the fantasy of their childhood, and for the young, it would give them something to remember when they grow old."[35] Many San Franciscans, especially women, supported Asawa's mermaid sculpture and successfully rallied behind her to protect it.[36]


Union Square (on Stockton Street, between Post and Sutter Streets), she created a fountain for which she mobilized 200 schoolchildren to mold hundreds of images of the city of San Francisco in dough, which were then cast in iron.[13] Over the years, she went on to design other public fountains and became known in San Francisco as the "fountain lady".[13]

The artist's estate is represented by David Zwirner Gallery.[37]

In 2019, her Untitled (S.387, Hanging Three Separate Layers of Three-Lobed Forms), circa 1955, sold for US$4.1 million. Untitled (S.401, Hanging Seven-Lobed, Continuous Interlocking Form, with Spheres within Two Lobes), circa 1953-1954, sold for US$5.4 million in 2020. .[38][39]

Public service and arts education activism

Asawa had a passionate commitment to and was an ardent advocate for art education as a transformative and empowering experience, especially for children.

employing artists
of all disciplines to do public service work for the city.

The Alvarado approach worked to integrate the arts and gardening, mirroring Asawa's own upbringing on a farm. Asawa believed in a hands-on experience for children, and followed the approach "learning by doing". Asawa believed in the benefit of children learning from professional artists, something she adopted from learning from practicing artists at Black Mountain College. She believed that classroom teachers could not be expected to teach the arts, on top of all their other responsibilities. 85 percent of the program's budget went toward hiring professional artists and performers for the students to learn from.[18] This was followed up in 1982 by building a public arts high school, the San Francisco School of the Arts,[3] which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor in 2010.[43] Asawa would go on to serve on the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976,[41] and from 1989 to 1997 she served as a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.[41]

At the end of her life, Asawa recognized art education as central to the importance of her life's work.[44]

Personal life

In July 1949 Asawa married architect Albert Lanier, whom she met in 1947 at Black Mountain College.[45] The couple had six children: Xavier (1950), Aiko (1950), Hudson (1952), Adam (1956–2003), Addie (1958), and Paul (1959).[9] Albert Lanier died in 2008.[9] Asawa believed that "Children are like plants. If you feed them and water them generally they'll grow." At the time of their marriage, inter-racial marriages were legal in all but two states, California and Washington.[16] In 1960, the family moved to San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood,[23] where she was active for many years in the community.[4]


Asawa died of natural causes on August 5, 2013, at her San Francisco home at the age of 87.[9][46]

Awards and honors

Selected works

  • Andrea (1966), the mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, California[4]
  • Fountain (1973), The Hyatt on Union Square, San Francisco, California
  • Fountains (1976), The Buchanan Mall (Nihonmachi), San Francisco, California
  • Aurora (1986), the origami-inspired fountain on the San Francisco waterfront.[4]
  • The Japanese-American Internment Memorial Sculpture (1994) in San Jose, California[4]
  • The Garden of Remembrance (2002) at San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California



  • Snyder, Robert, producer (1978) Ruth Asawa: On Forms and Growth, Pacific Palisades, CA: Masters and Masterworks Production
  • Soe, Valerie, and Ruth Asawa directors (2003) Each One Teach One: The Alvarado School Art Program, San Francisco: Alvarado Arts Program.[55]

See also


  1. ^ . Retrieved September 16, 2023.
  2. ^ Tucker, Jill (February 24, 2010). "S.F. school board votes to send pink out slips" Archived February 4, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved October 13, 2017.
  3. ^ a b RELEASE: RUTH ASAWA Archived August 23, 2013, at the Wayback Machine Christie's; April 2, 2013.
  4. ^ a b c d e Anders, Corrie M (November 2005) "Ruth Asawa's Sculptures on Prominent Display in De Young." Archived June 29, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Noe Valley Voice. (Retrieved June 21, 2018.)
  5. ^ a b "Ruth Asawa Artworks Grace New US Postage Stamps". Hyperallergic. April 3, 2020. Retrieved April 9, 2020.
  6. ^ "Pioneering Japanese American Artist Ruth Asawa Honored With Forever Stamps - Newsroom -". Retrieved July 8, 2021.
  7. ^ "About Ruth Asawa". Archived from the original on October 24, 2017. Retrieved October 13, 2017. Birth Date: January 24, 1926, Country of Birth: Los Angeles (Norwalk)
  8. ISBN 978-0714878775. {{cite book}}: |last1= has generic name (help
  9. ^ from the original on August 18, 2013. Retrieved October 17, 2017.
  10. from the original on March 29, 2017. Retrieved March 29, 2017 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ Ollman, Leach (May 1, 2007). "The Industrious Line". Art in America.
  12. ^
    OCLC 951710657
  13. ^ a b c d Martin, Douglas (August 17, 2013). "Ruth Asawa, an Artist Who Wove Wire, Dies at 87". The New York Times / International Herald Tribune (online) (Global ed.). The New York Times Company. Archived from the original on August 18, 2013. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  14. ^ Editors (May 1, 2019) "Who Is Ruth Asawa, the Artist in Today's Google Doodle?" Archived May 1, 2019, at the Wayback Machine New York Times. (Retrieved May 1, 2019.)
  15. ^ Auer, James (December 18, 1998). "Artist's return remedies a postwar injustice". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. NewsBank document ID 0EB82C32E269DCB3.
  16. ^ a b Karlstrom, Paul. "Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, 2002 June 21-July 5". Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved December 11, 2021.
  17. OCLC 70775773.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link
  18. ^ .
  19. ^ "The College Died, but the Students Really Lived". The New York Times. March 14, 1992.
  20. ^ "Life: Black Mountain College Archived October 14, 2017, at the Wayback Machine", section "Influences". Ruth Asawa. Estate of Ruth Asawa. Retrieved October 13, 2017.
  21. ^
    OCLC 70775773.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link
  22. ^ Molesworth, Helen (2014). Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957. Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. p. 366.
  23. ^ a b c d Karlstrom, Paul. "Interviewer". Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved December 11, 2021.
  24. OCLC 70775773.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link
  25. OCLC 70775773.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link
  26. .
  27. ^ Baker, Kenneth (November 18, 2006). "An overlooked sculptor's work weaves its way into our times". San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on August 11, 2016. Retrieved August 20, 2016.
  28. OCLC 70775773.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link
  29. ^ "Art: Sculpture Archived October 13, 2017, at the Wayback Machine", section: "Tied Wire Sculpture". Ruth Asawa. Estate of Ruth Asawa. Retrieved October 13, 2017.
  30. OCLC 70775773.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link
  31. ^ Cooper, Ashton (November 26, 2013). "Ruth Asawa's Late, Meteoric Rise From Obscurity" Archived April 30, 2014, at the Wayback Machine. BlouinArtinfo. Retrieved December 6, 2014.
  32. OCLC 70775773.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link
  33. .
  34. ^ .
  35. ^ . Retrieved April 15, 2021.
  36. . Retrieved April 15, 2021.
  37. ^ "Ruth Asawa | David Zwirner". David Zwirner. Archived from the original on February 9, 2018. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
  38. ^ "Ruth Asawa | 137 Artworks at Auction | MutualArt".
  39. ^ "Ruth Asawa's Record-Breaking Year".
  40. ^ "California sculptor Ruth Asawa dies". August 6, 2013. Archived from the original on April 26, 2014. Retrieved August 2, 2014.
  41. ^ a b c "Ruth Asawa . Asawa's Life". Archived from the original on March 7, 2015. Retrieved August 2, 2014.
  42. ^ a b "Ruth Asawa . Arts Activism". Archived from the original on February 18, 2015. Retrieved August 2, 2014.
  43. The Los Angeles Times, archived
    from the original on August 7, 2013, retrieved August 7, 2013
  44. OCLC 1110673451.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link
  45. OCLC 70775773.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link
  46. ^ a b Baker, Kenneth (August 6, 2013), "California sculptor Ruth Asawa dies", San Francisco Chronicle, archived from the original on August 6, 2013, retrieved August 6, 2013
  47. ^ Tucker, Jill (February 24, 2010). "S.F. school board votes to send pink out slips". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved May 17, 2016.
  48. ^ (April 3, 2020) "National news: U.S. Postal Service Reveals Additional Stamps for 2020" (press release). United States Postal Service. (Retrieved April 3, 2020.)
  49. ^ Schultz, Issac (April 6, 2020). "A Trailblazing Japanese-American Sculptor Is Getting Her Own Postage Stamps". Atlas Obscura. Archived from the original on April 6, 2020.
  50. ^ a b "Celebrating Ruth Asawa". Google. May 1, 2019. Archived from the original on May 1, 2019. Retrieved May 1, 2019.
  51. ^ "Who's Who in Crochet". Crochet Guild of America. Retrieved October 22, 2021.
  52. ^ Kunst, Franz. "Asawa (Ruth) papers". Online Archive of California. Retrieved August 1, 2020.
  53. ^ a b "Ruth Asawa". KQED. May 4, 2005. Retrieved August 1, 2020.
  54. ^ a b "Ruth Asawa Bibliography" (PDF). Stanford University Libraries. pp. 48, 56. Retrieved August 1, 2020.
  55. ^ "Each One Teach One. The Alvarado School Art Program. by Valerie Soe and Ruth Asawa in SearchWorks catalog". Retrieved March 5, 2019.

Further reading

  • Abrahamson, Joan and Sally Woodridge (1973) The Alvarado School Art Community Program. San Francisco: Alvarado School Workshop.
  • Bancroft Library (1990) Ruth Asawa, Art, Competence and Citywide Cooperation for San Francisco," in The Arts and the Community Oral History Project. University of California, Berkeley.
  • Bell, Tiffany and Robert Storr (2017) Ruth Asawa. David Zwirner Books: New York.
  • Chase, Marilyn (2020) Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa. Chronicle Books: San Francisco.
  • Cook, Mariana (2000) Couples. Chronicle Books.
  • Cornell, Daniell et al. (2006) The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air. University of California Press.
  • Cunningham, Imogen (1970) Photographs, Imogen Cunningham. University of Washington Press.
  • D'Aquino, Andrea (2019) A Life Made by Hand: Ruth Asawa (children's book). Princeton Architectural Press.
  • Dobbs, Stephen (1981) "Community and Commitment: An Interview with Ruth Asawa", in Art Education vol 34 no 5.
  • Faul, Patricia et al. (1995) The New Older Woman. Celestial Arts.
  • Harris, Mary Emma (1987) The Arts at Black Mountain College. MIT Press.
  • Hatfield, Zack. "Ruth Asawa: Tending the Metal Garden", NY Daily, New York Review of Books, September 21, 2017
  • Hopkins, Henry and Mimi Jacobs (1982) 50 West Coast Artists. Chronicle Books.
  • Jepson, Andrea and Sharon Litsky (1976) The Alvarado Experience. Alvarado Art Workshop.
  • Laib, Jonathan et al. (2015) Ruth Asawa: Line by Line. Christie's show catalogue.
  • McClintock, Elizabeth (1977) The Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park. San Francisco: The John McLaren Society. (Plant illustrations by Asawa.)
  • Molesworth, Ellen et al. (2022) All Is Possible. (2021). David Zwirner Books: New York.
  • Rountree, Cathleen (1999) On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom. Jossey-Bass.
  • Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer (1992) American Women Sculptors. G.K. Hall.
  • San Francisco Museum of Art
    . (1973) Ruth Asawa: A Retrospective View. San Francisco Museum of Art.
  • Schatz, Howard (1992) Gifted Woman. Pacific Photographic Press.
  • Schenkenberg, Tamara et al. (2019) Ruth Asawa: Life's Work. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Schoettler, Joan (2018) Ruth Asawa: A Sculpting Life (children's book). Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing.
  • Villa, Carlos et al. (1994) Worlds in Collision: Dialogues on Multicultural Art Issues. San Francisco Art Institute.
  • Woodridge, Sally (1973) Ruth Asawa's San Francisco Fountain.
    San Francisco Museum of Art

External links