Visionary Sculptor Ruth Asawa Dies at 87

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Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883–1976). Untitled (Ruth Asawa holding a looped wire sculpture), 1952. Sepia toned gelatin silver print. Gift of Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier to the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO — The art world is mourning the loss of renowned sculptor and educator Ruth Aiko Asawa, who died of natural causes early Tuesday morning at the age of 87.

The Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, which was founded by the artist in 1982 and named in her honor in 2010, said in a statement that she “will always be remembered for her public works of art, her extraordinary wire sculptures, and her commitment to the children and people of San Francisco.”

“Ruth Asawa was a well-known and respected artist recognized all over the world for her innovative artwork,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. “Her passion for educating San Francisco’s youth and families made her a true champion of the arts for our entire city. From intricate wire sculptures to her remarkable public art pieces and memorable paintings and drawings, Ruth’s legacy will continue to inspire generations to come. We have lost a true friend to our city who brought unity to our communities through her creative insight.”

Ruth Asawa with son and fellow artist Paul Lanier in 2007 at a ceremony in which she received the Mayor’s Art Award from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. (San Francisco Arts Commission)

Timothy Burgard, curator of American art for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, told KQED, “Ruth Asawa will be remembered for the extraordinary wire sculptures that so beautifully interweave nature and culture … [She was] a pioneering post-World War II modernist whose works have transcended the multiple barriers she faced as an Asian American woman artist working with traditional ‘craft’ materials and techniques. She lived to see all of these confining categories challenged and redefined.”

Rene de Guzman, senior curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California, commented, “Her influences are far-reaching, and her importance in the story of California art history is unique and pioneering. Asawa challenged traditional ideas about what art can be, elevating a respect for the well-crafted object in a vigorous and thoughtful engagement with artistic concerns of her times. Her creative voice was always true to a vision, filled with integrity and expressing the independent spirit of the West.”

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of Ruth Asawa, which is a personal loss both to me and to the arts and education communities of San Francisco,” said Diane Wilsey, board president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Not only was she a loyal trustee, dedicated to the successful completion of the new de Young Museum, but she was also truly the heart of our board and a source of great personal encouragement during those challenging and exciting years.”

Asawa’s best-known works include such San Francisco landmarks as the Andrea Mermaid Fountain at Ghiardelli Square (1968), the Hyatt on Union Square Fountain (1973), the Buchanan Mall Fountains in Japantown (1976), the Aurora Fountain in Bayside Plaza (1986), and San Francisco State University’s Garden of Remembrance (2002).

The Union Square fountain was in the news earlier this year when it was threatened by a proposed Apple store. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that after furious public protest, the city rejected Apple’s plans and told the company to redo them to ensure that the fountain survives.

The cast bronze fountain is more than 13 feet across and 7 feet high. It depicts San Francisco, and about 250 friends and schoolchildren helped make the model for the fountain, using baker’s clay or dough, by contributing self-portraits, cars, buildings and various local landmarks.

Her other public commissions included “History of Wine” (1988), a fountain at Beringer Winery in St. Helena, and the Japanese American Internment Memorial (1994) in front of the Federal Building in San Jose. Like the Hyatt fountain, the latter sculpture incorporated many different stories, including the Nisei soldiers of World War II as well as the court cases that challenged the internment.

Asawa had exhibitions at numerous venues, including the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles in 2007, and her home in San Francisco’s Noe Valley was like a gallery, featuring life masks that she made of her family and friends over a span of more than 40 years.

Ruth Asawa’s cast bronze mermaids at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. (Photo by Aiko Cuneo)

From Rohwer to Black Mountain

Born on Jan. 24, 1926 in Norwalk to Umakichi and Haru Asawa, she was the fourth of seven children. Her Issei parents were truck farmers growing seasonal crops. Due to discriminatory laws, they were not allowed to become U.S. citizens or own land in California. On top of that, the family struggled to earn a living during the Great Depression.

Detail from the Japanese American Internment Memorial, a cast bronze relief sculpture in front of the Federal Building in San Jose. (Photo by Terry Schmitt)

Asawa showed an aptitude for art at an early age. Her painting of a polar bear was put up for display in 1935 and her third-grade teacher encouraged her artistic talent. In 1939, Asawa won a school competition with her drawing of the Statue of Liberty. On Saturdays, she attended a community cultural school, where she studied the Japanese language and calligraphy. She drew whenever she wasn’t working on the family farm or attending school.

In February 1942, Asawa’s father was arrested by FBI agents. She did not see him again until 1948. In April, the family was detained at Santa Anita Race Track, where they lived in horse stables for six months. Asawa studied drawing and painting with professional artists who were also interned, some of whom had worked for Disney Studios. In September, the family was shipped to Rohwer, a camp in Arkansas, where Asawa became the art editor for the high school yearbook.

Through a scholarship from the Quakers, Asawa studied to be an art teacher at Milwaukee State Teachers College in Wisconsin. She earned her way as a domestic servant and by work in a tanning factory. In 1945, she traveled to Mexico City with her sister Lois to study Spanish and Mexican art.

To get her credential, Asawa was required to practice-teach in a school, but administrators at her college said that they couldn’t find her a teaching position because of lingering ill will against the Japanese. Since she couldn’t complete her degree, she decided to study art at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

During her three years at Black Mountain, Asawa’s teachers included painter Josef Albers, dancer Merce Cunningham, and architect/inventor Buckminster Fuller. The experience gave her the courage to pursue a career as an artist. She also met her future husband, architecture and design student Albert Lanier. In 1947, she returned to Mexico on a trip sponsored by the Quakers and learned techniques for crocheting baskets that she would later experiment with in her wire sculptures.

Asawa left Black Mountain to join Lanier in San Francisco, where they married against the wishes of their families. They decided to live in San Francisco, which had a vibrant arts community and, they hoped, would be hospitable to an interracial couple. The Laniers had six children, Xavier (born in 1950), Aiko (1950), Hudson (1952), Adam (1956), Addie (1958), and Paul (1959). Asawa was predeceased by her husband, who passed away in 2008 at age 81, and son Adam.

Asawa drew, painted, experimented with paper, and continued her experimentation with crocheted wire sculpture while raising her children. Struggling to make ends meet, the couple tried their hand at designing for industry, but were offended at the business practices. Asawa began to receive recognition for her crocheted wire sculptures and decided to continue developing her own work in her studio at home. Her husband worked as a draftsman for various architectural firms.

Asawa exhibited her sculptures, paintings, and drawings in solo and group shows at such venues as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She had major solo retrospective exhibits at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1973), Fresno Art Center (1978 and 2001), Oakland Museum (2002), the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco (2006), and the Japan Society in New York (2007). Asawa was profiled by the KQED show “Spark” in 2005, and “Ruth Asawa: Roots of an Artist,” a documentary by Bob Toy, premiered at the de Young in 2011.

Asawa begins competing for and receiving commissions to make public art. She became known as the “Fountain Lady.” Her fountains in Japantown and on the San Francisco waterfront were inspired by origami designs. Most of these commissions, which were either cast or fabricated from metal, allowed her to employ assistants and to collaborate with other artists, foundry workers, and sheet metal workers.

In 2002, she collaborated in the making of the Garden of Remembrance at SFSU. Working with landscape artists, her idea was to bring large boulders from each of the ten War Relocation Authority camps where Japanese Americans were interned.

One of two origami-inspired fountains created by Asawa for San Francisco Japantown’s Buchanan Mall. The original steel fountains were recast in bronze in 1999, but the water has often been turned off due to drought or technical problems. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Advocacy for the Arts

Asawa joined Sally Woodbridge and other parents to co-found the Alvarado Arts Workshop (her three youngest children were attending Alvarado Elementary School). With limited financial support, they began with throwaway objects like egg cartons and brought artists in to work with the students. Asawa formulated a teaching philosophy based on her personal experience: children develop as creative thinkers and problem solvers by practicing art and gardening. The program spread to other schools as parents followed their children.

The Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State University includes boulders representing the 10 War Relocation Authority camps. (SFSU photo)

In 1973, Asawa was instrumental in organizing the Music, Art, Dance, Drama, and Science (MADDS) Festival, which became an annual citywide youth event sponsored by schools, civic leaders, neighborhood groups and the museums.

In 1982, Asawa focused her energy on building a public high school for the arts, School of the Arts (SOTA) High School. Her dream was to house SOTA in the heart of the Civic Center so that it would be in close proximity to San Francisco’s world-class opera, ballet, symphony, theater, library and museums. She wanted students to be able to attend a public high school where the standards are high and they can achieve their own individual potential.

“Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation,” she said. “It makes a person broader.”

SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza said in a statement, “The San Francisco Unified School District community is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Ruth Asawa Lanier. She will be forever remembered for her dedication to the schoolchildren of San Francisco and loving work to make our city and schools more beautiful and joyful learning environments. Our condolences and thoughts go out to her family.

“Ruth Asawa was a pioneer who brought arts education to countless students. She created the Alvarado Arts Workshop and established the ‘artists in the schools’ model of public school arts education, a model that has become a benchmark for arts education in American schools …

“Her legacy will live on in the young and hopeful artists who attend Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, a public school. Her art and influence is sure to touch San Franciscans for generations to come.”

Asawa was appointed for a four-year term to the San Francisco Arts Commission by Mayor Joseph Alioto in 1968. She served on President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on Mental Health (1974), the California Arts Council (1976), and the National Endowment for the Arts (1977). She became a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1989 and served for eight years.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco said in a statement, “Asawa was a groundbreaking modernist sculptor with whom the museums enjoyed a long-standing relationship. An internationally exhibited artist, teacher, arts advocate, and museum trustee, she leaves a remarkable legacy.

“During her tenure as a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums, Asawa made lasting contributions to the evolution of the new de Young. She advised Herzog & de Meuron on the design of the Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Education Tower, and provided hours of public testimony in support of the building’s innovative architecture. She also initiated a children’s campaign in support of the museums’ school art programs and was instrumental in the relocation of the Gottardo Piazzoni murals from San Francisco’s old Main Library to the new de Young.

“In anticipation of the new de Young, Ms. Asawa was invited by the museums’ director at the time, Harry S. Parker III, to create a permanent installation for the base of the tower. She selected and gave 15 of her most significant sculptures (including several of her internationally acclaimed wire sculptures from the 1950s and 1960s), which have been prominently displayed since the building opened in 2005.

“In 2006 the de Young mounted ‘The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air’ —the most significant retrospective devoted to the artist. The exhibition featured her earliest drawings and paintings created at Black Mountain College … as well as her signature wire sculptures. Photographs of Asawa taken by her close friend Imogen Cunningham were included in the exhibition, and several were donated to the Fine Arts Museums by Asawa in her name and that of her late husband …

“Today the Fine Arts Museums preserve more than 150 of Asawa’s works for future generations of scholars and museum visitors. Asawa was a beloved member of the museums and the greater San Francisco Bay Area community. She will be dearly missed.”

Asawa’s “Aurora Fountain” at Bayside Plaza in San Francisco. It is 13 feet in diameter and made of stainless steel. (Photo by Hudson Cuneo)

Asawa was diagnosed with lupus in 1985 and lost a year to serious illness and recovery. She never regained her former strength, although the disease was in remission. In 2002, she reduced her public engagements due to her declining health, but she personally received the Mayor’s Art Award from then-Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2007.

Over the years, she was honored by the American Institute of Architects, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Women’s Caucus for the Arts, Pacific Asian American Women Bay Area Coalition, and the Asian American Arts Foundation, among others. She also received honorary doctorates from California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco Art Institute and SFSU.

“Art is for everybody,” Asawa once said. “It is not something that you should have to go to the museums in order to see and enjoy. When I work on big projects, such as a fountain, I like to include people who haven’t yet developed their creative side — people yearning to let their creativity out. I like designing projects that make people feel safe, not afraid to get involved.”

Messages to the family can be posted on Asawa’s fan page on Facebook.

(Biography from www.ruthasawa.com)

Click here to hear/read NPR’s interview with Asawa’s son Paul Lanier.

Left: Ruth Asawa holding a paper fold in which she has already painted a pattern, circa 1975. Right: A dancer from School of the Arts in San Francisco rehearsing with a paper fold that was used as part of the dance. Asawa’s longtime friend and assistant Mae Lee helped make the paper fold.

 

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