Forever Stamps Honor Noted JA Artist

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By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The U.S. Postal Service formally unveiled a set of 10 Forever Stamps honoring noted artist Ruth Asawa (1926-2013).

Born in Norwalk, Asawa was incarcerated at Santa Anita Assembly Center and later the Rohwer camp in Arkansas during World War II. Her Issei father was held in a detention camp in New Mexico and she did not see him for six years.

Asawa later married and lived in San Francisco, where her sculptures can be found in such locations as Union Square and Japantown. She also created artwork in San Jose and at San Francisco State University to commemorate the camps.

The stamps showcase the wire sculptures for which Asawa is known, and the selvage features a photo of her taken by Nat Farbman in 1954 for Life magazine.

The online launch of the stamps started with footage of Asawa working in her studio and an excerpt from an interview.

Her son Paul Lanier said, “When all of us in Ruth’s family heard about the Ruth Asawa stamps, we were very moved. She would have been happy that stamps inspired by her wire sculptures will be traveling all over the world. We would like to thank the Postal Service for honoring our mother, who liked sending letters and, of course, receiving mail.

Ruth Asawa

“Besides being an artist, she loved to teach, especially the habit of hard work and creative problem-solving. She wanted people of all ages to experience making something from nothing. She wanted us to tap into our creative energy, using everyday materials. She had a diverse community where the boundaries between raising six children, cooking meals, caring for others, activism, and making art all merged together into one continuous activity.

“She always worked late at night on her drawings while we slept … When my mother was only 20 years old, before she got married and started her family, she took out a loan to go to an art school in North Carolina called Black Mountain College. There she worked with professional artists who expected her to think as an individual. One of her teachers was Josef Albers. He wanted her to experiment with ordinary materials like paper and wire, and to see the world in a different way.

“I remember when I would ask her how to do something, she would often say that I should try it. Ruth was proud of her work in public education, bringing artists into schools and helping to create a public arts high school, which now is named after her, the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.

“Mom was interviewed when she was 73. She talked about the importance of learning, how to use your little bits of time, your five minutes here, your 10 minutes there. All those moments begin to add up. She also said, ‘Learn how to use time when it is given to you.’”

Paul Lanier

Sharon Owens, USPS vice president of pricing and costing, said, “The Postal Service takes tremendous pride in its stamp program, which celebrates the very best of American life, history and culture. Today, we’re dedicating a new stamp set that honors the groundbreaking and iconic works of Ruth Asawa, one of the greatest American artists of the past century.

“The stamps depict 10 of her famous wire sculptures. They’re brilliant examples of abstract design with layers of continuous or intersecting surfaces. These remarkable sculptures also took their inspiration from nature, as the organic shapes almost seem to be alive.

“Ruth Asawa’s legacy includes major public installations, such as San Francisco’s Garden of Remembrance, which commemorates Japanese Americans interned during World War II, and her playful and much-loved Mermaid Fountain located at Ghirardelli Square. She was also a lifelong advocate of arts education and played a key role in establishing the first public arts high school on the West Coast.”

Jonathan Laib, director of the David Zeimer Gallery in New York City, said, “We’re proud representatives of the estate of Ruth Asawa. My first visit to San Francisco to meet with the Asawa family in 2009 was a revelation. Never had I been so captivated. The rafters of the family home were tightly filled with amoeba-like shapes angling downward … The sight was so unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

George Takei

“Ruth Asawa’s work opened my eyes to an entirely new world of form and experimentation that was utterly original and authentic. I was spellbound. I also knew that my experience was probably not unique. If I felt this way upon my first encounter, then anyone who encountered her work for the first time would be similarly amazed.

“Within the past decade, Asawa has had five solo gallery and museum exhibitions, and an exhibition of her work will travel through Europe in 2021. Her work is now included in many important public collections … Asawa’s sculptures are drawings in space, volumes without mass. Through a simple looping technique, Asawa created this delicate form and redefined sculpture.

“The Postal Service’s national recognition for Asawa through this set of 10 stamps honors her tremendous talent and complex life. Her story will help provide a more inclusive history of American art which brings to light the major contributions and accomplishments of female artists and artists of color throughout our history.”

Actor George Takei, founding member and chair emeritus of the Board of Trustees of the Japanese American National Museum, said, “It seems eminently fitting that Ruth Asawa would be honored on a postage stamp because stamps are the vehicle that connects people over distances. Ruth Asawa’s art connects people over time and space with beauty and history.

“A few years ago, I went to a Ruth Asawa exhibit at a gallery in the Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles. I was astounded. Her work was like nothing I had seen before. These pieces were light, floating, almost evanescent. They were buoyant, woven wire bubbles hanging from the ceiling. Some were elegantly voluptuous effervescences. Some shimmered like exotic undersea growth; others, voluminous, surreal organisms.

“They were all made of artfully woven steel wires. The very material that once confined her so long ago, Ruth had taken the ugly, biting symbol of hate and incarceration, and with her creative imagination transformed it into buoyant things of beauty …

Linda Mihara speaks at a San Francisco event held next to one of Ruth Asawa’s Origami Fountains in Japantown’s Buchanan Mall. (Photo by John Nagano)

“We (at JANM) take great pride in the life and art of Ruth Asawa and congratulate her family on being honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a Forever Stamp. May this stamp live long and prosper.”

A press conference was also held Thursday in San Francisco Japantown’s Buchanan Mall, where Asawa created two Origami Fountains in 1976. Speakers included Claudine Cheng of the Asian Pacific Heritage Foundation; April Alex of USPS; Kyle Smeallie of San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston’s office (District 5); Grace Horikiri of the Japantown Community Benefit Distict; and origami artist Linda Mihara of Paper Tree.

The stamps are available at post offices nationwide. You can also have them delivered to your home or office by going to http://usps.com/shop or calling 1-800-STAMP24 (782-6724).

Forever Stamps will always be equal in value to the current first-class mail one-ounce price.

The Origami Fountains functioned when they were first created but have been dry for many years. Asawa also helped to create artwork for the benches in the mall.

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