Ruth Asawa: A Life in Art, by pam rubert


I find it deepens my appreciation for the art, if I have an opportunity to study the life of an artist who also serves as an inspiring role model. Recently I found such an artist through the blog of Sculpturess.

Photo by Laurence Cuneo from

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.

ruth_asawa2.jpgFuller’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.

ruth_asawa1.jpgWhile 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 for more photos of her amazing sculptures, studio, techniques, art activism and education, and history of the Japanese internment.


7 Responses to “Ruth Asawa: A Life in Art, by pam rubert”

  1. 1 alison schwabe November 26, 2011 at 7:16 am

    In addition to aspiring to make interesting and meaningful creative works myself, I hope one day something I have said or written will be thought quotable too ! So much to think about, thanks for this Pam.

  2. 2 eileen February 3, 2008 at 11:50 am

    This is a fascinating artist and art. I hope to find more time to explore what she has accomplished; thank you for the links. Her statement “The artist must discover the uniqueness and integrity of the material” is inspiring to me as I try to follow that path with cloth and thread, hoping to break away from quilted art that looks like painting.

  3. 3 Angela February 3, 2008 at 9:03 am

    Pam, what an inspiring woman. Lots of of good ideas to mull about: integration of art and life (the daily chores of living), getting to know the materials well, community involvement… all so fundamental and yet so easy to forget as we go about our days.

  4. 4 Jen Anderson February 1, 2008 at 11:10 am

    Her work is breathtaking in its beauty, and I appreciate the idea of seamless integration between art and life. Jen

  5. 5 Joann Wells Greenbaum February 1, 2008 at 7:46 am

    This is such an inspiring story. To think that while in an internment camp, the artist was exposed to some very creative people, lessons and materials. It’s as though the camp actually set her free to be more creative.
    Also because of her camp experience, I’m thinking that allowed her to integrate her art more readily into her life experience, no matter if it was while raising children or performing domestic chores.
    I love her use of simple and natural materials. I’m going to look at her website now.

  6. 6 pamdora January 31, 2008 at 9:51 am

    Glad you enjoyed it Jane. I just posted my personal reflections on her story on my blog — my family was interned in the same camp and has impact on how I view her art, but I just couldn’t fit it all in the above post. Here’s a link to my blog entry:

  7. 7 Jane LaFazio January 31, 2008 at 7:26 am

    Ah Pam, thank you for the reminder about a fabulous artist Ruth Asawa. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and first heard of Ruth when she created an elaborate clay sculpture around a fountain on Union Square in San Francisco…probably the 1960s. Then I saw her incredibly wire sculptures at the fabulous new structure of the deYoung Museum (a must for those traveling to San Francisco/Golden Gate Park.) But I was fascinated to read she has 6 children and spent time and hours at an internment camp studying with disney artists. What a woman! What a full life she has and has created! Thanks so much for the article. Now I’m off to visit Ruth’s site! and I’m reminded art is life/life is art.

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