Photo by Laurence Cuneo from www.ruthasawa.com
Ruth Asawa, a Japanese American artist, was born in 1926 in a farming community in southern California. Early she showed talent and motivation in art — but it was at age 16 when she was confined in the Japanese internments camps during World War II that she had the unusual opportunity to study drawing and design for five hours a day with three Walt Disney studio artists who were also internment prisoners and taught the camp children.
Following internment, Asawa was awarded a scholarship to attend the Black Mountain College in North Carolina to study with avant-garde artist Josef Albers from the Bauhaus in Germany and Buckminster Fuller, best known for inventing the geodesic dome.
Fuller’s influence is easily seen in Asawa’s tied wire sculptures, forms that resemble natural formations of snowflakes or trees. Less obvious may be Albers’ emphasis to continually experiment with materials, “The artist must discover the uniqueness and integrity of the material.”
These tied wire works, and the more dramatic crocheted wire basket-forms are woven and crocheted by hand with long strands of copper, brass, and iron. Some of these techniques were learned by Asawa on a trip to Mexico to study with native basket-makers. Asawa also worked with folded paper, ink painting, clay made from flour — all simple materials that she took to sophisticated ends through her sensitivity and experimentation.
While at Black Mountain, Asawa met and married fellow student and architect Albert Lanier. They moved to San Francisco and together raised a family with six children. When asked about her life, she said, “that there is no separation between studying, performing the daily chores of living, and creating one’s own work.” And also “Sculpture is like farming. If you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.”
Throughout her life, Asawa remained true to this philosophy of no separation between her art and life. In a review of her work, art writer Shirle Gottlieb said, “Then as now, art is a way of living, an integral part of her life; less is always more; and the positive/negative elements of line, form, color and space must be kept in balance.”
Besides being a studio artist, Asawa created numerous public art commissions, served on President Carter’s Commission on the Role of Arts in Mental Health, the NEA, as trustee for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and with other parents created an activist program to bring stronger arts education into San Francisco schools.
Regarding arts education, Asawa said “..through the arts you can learn many, many skills that you cannot learn through books and problem-solving in the abstract. A child can learn something about color, about design, and about observing objects in nature. If you do that, you grow into a greater awareness of things around you. Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader.”
Please visit Asawa’s excellent website www.ruthasawa.com for more photos of her amazing sculptures, studio, techniques, art activism and education, and history of the Japanese internment.