S.F. School of the Arts Named After Ruth Asawa

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Back row, from left: David Chiu, president, San Francisco Board of Supervisors; Paul Lanier, artist, SOTA parent and Ruth Asawa's son; Dr. Milton Chen, senior fellow at Edutopia — The George Lucas Educational Foundation; Peter Coyote, author and actor; Michael Palladino, president, Friends of SOTA; State Sen. Mark Leno. Front row, from left: Jasmine Lee, SOTA Student Council president; Ron Gallman, director of education, San Francisco Symphony; Deborah Santana, author and SOTA alumni parent; Aiko Cuneo, artist, SOTA alumni parent and Asawa’s daughter; Jill Wynns, San Francisco Board of Education; Susan Stauter, San Francisco Unified School District artistic director; Andie Rose Crug, SOTA alumna, Class of 2010; Carmelo Sgarlato, principal, SOTA and Academy of Arts and Sciences; Hosanna Rubio, SOTA creative writing student; Karen Kai, Japantown community activist. (Photo by Larry Rosenberg)

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco School of the Arts unveiled a new marquee in celebration of both the school’s new name, Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA), and reaching a milestone of 30 years of excellence in public arts education on Sept. 14.

Speakers included Milton Chen, author and executive director emeritus of Edutopia — The George Lucas Educational Foundation; State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco); SOTA Principal Carmelo Sgarlato; author/philanthropist Deborah Santana; San Francisco Symphony Director of Education Ron Gallman; and San Francisco Board of Education member Jill Wynns.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu read a proclamation on behalf of Mayor Ed Lee. The on-site press conference included a reception, live music by SOTA students, and a tour of the school.

Founded by acclaimed artist Ruth Asawa with other local artists, educators and parents in 1982, SOTA thrives as a standout public high school providing world-class academics and arts education. To commemorate Asawa’s vision and dedication in offering public school students exceptional arts education from professional artists and celebrated teachers, SOTA embraces a new moniker as it enters into its 30th year as an award-winning school.

Among many accolades garnered over the years, SOTA was recently honored with a 2011 California Distinguished School Award; it was the only high school in San Francisco to receive this award in 2011. It also won the award in 2003.

Asawa herself was unable to attend, but she was well represented by family members.

“Our family is so proud to have this wonderful school named after our mother,” says Paul Lanier, Asawa’s son and parent of two students at the school. “It is her lifelong dream to have children work with, and be taught by, professional artists and to have students pursue their dreams. Ruth is amazed by the students’ countless hours of rehearsals, practice, drawing and painting as well as their rigorous academic studies.”

Actor/writer Peter Coyote, former chair of the California State Arts Council, adds, “Ruth Asawa is a national treasure that we have the good fortune to live with in San Francisco. Her unceasing efforts for the arts and arts education has produced a magnificent school, fountains, public works, and generations of switched-on, focused young-people, and contented adults. I bow at her feet.”

In 1968, Asawa co-founded the Alvarado Arts Workshop in Alvarado Elementary School in San Francisco. The goal was to bring professional artists into public school classes to teach art. Over the years, the workshop blossomed and spread to various elementary and middle schools across the Bay Area.

Asawa always held the vision to bring top-notch arts education to the high school level, and to have a high school for the arts that was centrally located to the Civic Center Arts Corridor. Establishing SOTA marked an incredible accomplishment for her and the school district. The school’s continued success is attributed to the legacy of Asawa’s work, and to all the dedicated artists, teachers, students and parents.

Aiko Cuneo, Asawa’s daughter, notes, “Naming the school Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts shows that the school district really believes in all the hard work she has put into the city. My mother always thought that the arts taught children to learn their fullest capabilities as well as limitations. She wanted all children to have the opportunity to experience the joy of making art, and the problem solving that comes with the artistic process. The Asawa family has always been extremely proud to be a part of SOTA, which has proven to provide an exceptional academic and arts education to public high school students in San Francisco.”

Asawa and her husband, architect Albert Lanier, raised six children. Lanier, who also helped to establish SOTA, passed away in 2008 at the age of 81.

SOTA is located at 555 Portola Drive.

Origami Fountains

Ruth Asawa's Buchanan Mall fountain in San Francisco Japantown (1976). Made of corten steel and later cast in bronze, this fountain is based on a paper-fold. (www.ruthasawa.com)

Karen Kai, attorney and Japantown community activist, spoke on behalf of Emily Murase, Board of Education member and director of the city’s Department on the Status of Women, who was attending the White House Summit on Women and the Economy.

Noting that SOTA is the first school in the San Francisco Unified School District to be named for a Japanese American, Kai commented that “the honor could not be more fitting. In the Japanese American community, Ruth Asawa is beloved for the strength and beauty of her art, in which we see expressed the echoes and inspiration of our heritage, and for her generous involvement in our community.”

In 1974, Asawa created the Origami Fountains, two lotuses fabricated in corten steel, on Buchanan Mall in Japantown. By 1996, the steel had seriously deteriorated and the fountains had to be removed. Kai was part of Friends of the Origami Fountains, a group formed to save the sculptures.

“Support mounted quickly — we found that the magic words ‘Ruth Asawa’ moved mountains,” Kai recalled. “The Redevelopment Agency found funds to have the fountains recast in bronze. Of course, Ruth was on hand to guide us, creating the molds from the original fountains, overseeing the pouring of the bronze and the installation and dedication of the new fountains.”

She added, “Ruth’s works in Japantown were saved because of the love and respect with which she is regarded. Likewise, this dedication is a reflection of appreciation for Ruth Asawa — artist, teacher, interpreter, explorer and guide — who has worked with such dedication over so many years to establish this school. We rejoice that, long into the future, the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts will carry on her remarkable legacy through the inspiration the teachers, staff and students who come here to learn, create, develop and share their art.”

About Ruth Asawa

Asawa is nationally recognized for her wire sculpture, public commissions, and her activism in education and the arts. In San Francisco, she has been called the “Fountain Lady” because so many of her fountains are on public view.

When Asawa was 16, she and her family were interned along with 120,000 other people of Japanese ancestry who lived along the West Coast. For many, the upheaval of losing everything, most importantly their right to freedom and a private, family life, caused irreparable harm. For Asawa, the internment was the first step on a journey to a world of art that profoundly changed who she was and what she thought was possible in life.

Asawa exhibits her work — sculptures, paintings, and drawings — in solo and group shows at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Oakland Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

Ruth Asawa holding a paper fold in which she has already painted a pattern, circa 1975. (www.ruthasawa.com)

In 1962, she began experimenting with tied-wire and electroplating techniques. In 1965, she received a Tamarind Lithography Workshop Fellowship that allowed her to spend two months in Los Angeles making prints with master printmakers. She came to have major solo retrospective exhibits at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1973), the Fresno Art Center (1978 and 2001), the Oakland Museum (2002), the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum (2006), and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles (2007).

Asawa’s most famous public sculptures are “Andrea,” the mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square (1966); the Hyatt on Union Square Fountain (1973); “Aurora,” the origami-inspired fountain on the San Francisco waterfront (1986); the Japanese American Internment Memorial Sculpture in San Jose (1994); and the “San Francisco Yesterday and Today” cast bas relief at the Parc 55 Wyndham Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco (1984).

Most of these commissions, which are either cast or fabricated from metal, allowed Asawa to employ assistants and to collaborate with other artists, foundry workers, and sheet metal workers. The fees for the commissions gave her the financial freedom to experiment with different ideas. In 2002, she collaborated in the making of the Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State University.

In 1968, Asawa was appointed for a four-year term to the San Francisco Arts Commission by Mayor Joseph Alioto. That same year, she joined Sally Woodbridge and other parents to co-found the Alvarado Arts Workshop. With limited financial support, they began with throwaway objects — milk cartons, egg cartons, scrap fabric — and brought artists in to work with the students. She formulated a teaching philosophy based on her personal experience: children develop as creative thinkers and problem solvers by practicing art and gardening.

Ruth Asawa's "Andrea" mermaid fountain, Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, 1968. Cast bronze. (www.ruthasawa.com)

In 1973, Asawa was instrumental in organizing the Music, Art, Dance, Drama, and Science (MADDS) Festival, which became an annual citywide youth arts festival called Young at Art that was sponsored by schools, civic leaders, neighborhood groups and the museums. She also served on President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on Mental Health (1974), the California Arts Council (1976), and the National Endowment for the Arts (1977).

In 1982, Asawa focused her energy on building School of the Arts High School. Her dream remains to house the school in the heart of the Civic Center so that it will be in close proximity to San Francisco’s world-class cultural organizations — opera, ballet, symphony, Museum of Modern Art, Asian Art Museum, American Conservatory Theater, and Main Library. Students would finally be able to attend a public high school where the standards were high and where they could achieve their own individual potential — as artists, as future parents, and as community members — whether they went on to become professional artists or not.

In spite of her illness (she was diagnosed with lupus in 1985), Asawa was very productive from 1986 to 2000. She became a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1989 and served for eight years. Through the beauty of advanced media and technology, Asawa, now 85, has been able to enjoy viewing SOTA performances, visual arts events, and public recognition of a successful arts high school.

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