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Ruth Asawa (1926-2013)


Untitled (S.769/60), c.1960
brass wire
22" x 25 1/2" x 16"

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“I think the craft is important to a concept. I think to conceive that one works in dough and then that is made into bronze. There are many steps between the concept and the project. And I think that one should experience that. I think that that’s important.”[1]

Activist, sculptor, and educator Ruth Aiko Asawa was born in 1926 in Norwalk, California to Japanese immigrant parents who made a living as truck farmers. As a child, Asawa dreamed of being an artist while she helped out on the family farm. In 1942, Asawa was separated from her father when he was arrested in February under emergency legislation that authorized the detention without due process of Japanese Americans. Four months later, the rest of the family was taken to the internment camp at Santa Anita Race Track, where they were housed in former horse stalls for five months, before being moved to another internment camp, in Rohwer, Arkansas. Among the many people detained at Santa Anita were two cartoonists for Disney Studios who held daily art lessons for children. Despite the trauma of internment, Asawa was able to draw for hours every day. When she was moved to Arkansas, she became the art editor of the camp’s high school yearbook.

In 1943, Asawa obtained permission to attend college. With funds from a Quaker scholarship, she enrolled at Milwaukee State Teachers College in Wisconsin with the intent of becoming an art teacher. However, she was unable to complete her degree because prejudice against Japanese Americans prevented her from getting the classroom teaching hours that were required. In 1946, Asawa transferred to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she studied with Buckminster Fuller and Josef Albers. While she was at Black Mountain, Asawa took a trip to Mexico in 1947. While there, she attended a workshop on how to create baskets by crocheting wire and was inspired by this folk method of basket making.

After graduating from Black Mountain in 1949, Asawa moved to San Francisco, where she settled permanently. She began experimenting with wire crocheting techniques, creating sculptures that “turned inside into outside and . . . made no distinction between interior and exterior [so that] a free flow of form and space was produced.”[2] These intricate works began to earn her wide-scale recognition in the 1950s. Her first solo exhibition took place in 1956 at Peridot Gallery in New York City. Afterwards, her work was included in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in 1958 and 1959 respectively. In addition to her crocheted works, in 1962, Asawa made a series of large wall-mounted sculptures inspired by the internal structure of a desert plant. Initially, Asawa had tried to sketch the plant; unsatisfied with the results, she decided to “draw” it in wire instead.

While her work was being shown in an increasing number of group and solo exhibitions in the 1960s, Asawa continued to grow as an artist, branching out into different media. In 1965, she received a fellowship to work in Los Angeles at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop (now in Albuquerque, New Mexico). While there, she produced a series of fifty-two sumi-e (literally “ink paintings”) lithographs inspired by Japanese calligraphy. In 1968, she received the first of many public commissions and created her bronze Mermaid Fountain, now a beloved part of San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square. Asawa has since done several other public works, including a 1976 fountain for San Francisco’s Japantown and a 1996 bas-relief for a San José memorial honoring the suffering of Japanese Americans interned during the war.

Asawa’s immense talent and versatility are matched by her dedication to arts education, a commitment driven by her own experiences as a child as well as by her role as a mother to six children. “In 1968, appalled by the lack of meaningful arts instruction at the elementary school her children attended, Asawa, together with art historian Sally Woodbridge, created Alvarado Arts Workshop to bring practicing artists into the schools. The program expanded over time to encompass, at its height, 50 San Francisco schools.”[3] Her passion for art education also led her to experiment with communal ways of making artwork. During the 1973 mid-career retrospective of her work at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), “Asawa invited the public to join her in a ‘dough-in.’ Using baker’s clay—a mixture of flour, salt, and water—more than 1,000 mostly young participants collectively created a piece.”[4] In 1982, Asawa was instrumental in helping to found the San Francisco School of the Arts, the city’s first public high school dedicated to the arts. In 1996, Asawa won an arts education award from the National Education Association, and in 2010, the school she helped to found was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor. She continues to live and work in San Francisco.


[1] Oral History Interview with Ruth Asawa,

[2] Carol Kort, “Ruth Asawa,” Kort and Liz Sonneborn, A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts (Infobase Publishing, 2002), 10.

[3] “Ruth Asawa: Completing the Circle,” Oakland Museum of California Website. http://museumca.org/exhibit/exhi_asawa.html (Accessed November 2012).

[4] Kort, 10.