“Art is doing,” she wrote. “Art deals directly with life.”
Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) was an American sculptor from California. She was one of the first Asian American women in the nation to achieve recognition in a male-dominated discipline. Born to Japanese immigrants, in 1942, her family was sent to an internment camp for six months; while there, she spent time drawing and painting with other artists. Asawa traveled to Mexico City in 1945 to study Spanish and Mexican Art.
While attending the Milwaukee State Teachers College in Wisconsin, she was told that she couldn’t complete her degree because of the prejudice that existed against the Japanese people at the time. This led to Asawa’s continued education at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. She studied under Josef Albers, Merce Cunningham, and Buckminster Fuller. She was greatly influenced by her studies at Black Mountain College which featured courses by artist Jacob Lawrence, photography curator and historian Beaumont Newhall, Jean Varda, John Cage and Willem de Kooning.
In 1947, Asawa returned to Mexico and learned basket weaving techniques, which later inspired her to create crocheted wire sculptures. During the 1950s, Asawa began her art career making paintings and drawings that developed into linear works. After time and experimentation, her drawings shifted into sculpture.
What set her work apart from others was how she interpreted structural form to the images of her drawings. The sculptures she created were three-dimensional, detailed and changed depending on the viewer’s perspective. She was inspired by nature and captured the essence of lightness and transparency, as well as their movement to her suspended wired works.
“My curiosity was aroused by the idea of giving structural form to the images in my drawings. These forms come from observing plants, the spiral shell of a snail, seeing light through insect wings, watching spiders repair their webs in the early morning, and seeing the sun through the droplets of water suspended from the tips of pine needles while watering my garden.” Her work weaves together nature and our culture.
In 1966, Asawa began to receive commissions for public art, starting with Andrea, a fountain in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. She also designed the Japanese American Internment Memorial Sculpture in San Jose in 1994. Asawa collaborated with landscape artists in 2002 to bring large boulders from former Japanese internment camps to San Francisco State University to create the Garden of Remembrance. Her belief in making art education available to children from all backgrounds lead her to co-found the Alvarado Arts Workshop (now called the San Francisco Arts Education Project) with Sally Woodbridge and other local parents in 1965. Asawa’s sculptures can be found in the collections of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art in Logan, Utah.
Asawa died in San Francisco, CA, at the age of 87.