Born in 1926 in Norwalk, California, Asawa was the fourth of seven children to immigrant parents, who farmed produce for local markets and restaurants. The hardships of the Great Depression, combined with racial discrimination against the Japanese, made it difficult for the Asawa family to sustain a steady income. Nevertheless, young Ruth thrived in school – especially art. In eighth grade, she won a school-wide competition on the theme “What it Means to be an American” with her drawing of the Statue of Liberty. Yet, with xenophobia at a fever pitch following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Asawa family was deemed not American enough.
In February 1942, Ruth’s father was arrested by the FBI and taken to an internment camp in New Mexico. The family would not see him again for six years. Shortly thereafter, the entire Asawa clan, along with 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast—many who were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents—were forcibly relocated and corralled in internment camps. The Asawas were initially stationed at Santa Anita Race Track, about 15 miles east of Los Angeles, and lived in the horse stables for six months. During this time, Ruth further honed her drawing skills through art classes organized by three fellow internees who had been animators at Walt Disney Studios. The Asawas were eventually sent to another relocation camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, where Ruth graduated high school and served as the yearbook art director. She would later say of her experience in the camps: “I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one. Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the internment, and I like who I am.”
With a scholarship from the Society of Friends—also known as the Quakers, who were guided by their strong tenants in philanthropy, social justice and outreach—Asawa attended Milwaukee State Teachers College from 1943-46. However, she was unable to earn her teaching credential due to the lingering discrimination toward the Japanese. (More than 50 years later, Milwaukee State recognized Asawa’s achievements by inviting her to accept an honorary doctorate degree. In response, she simply asked to be awarded the Bachelor’s Degree she was originally barred from receiving.)
In 1946, Asawa made the pivotal decision to study at Black Mountain College, a progressive school in Asheville, North Carolina, that believed in a strong liberal arts education outside the confines of the classroom. Here, Asawa learned from artists Josef Albers and Franz Kline, dancer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage and architect and inventor of the geodesic dome, Buckminster Fuller. Taken by Asawa’s work, Fuller prominently hung one of her beguiling curved sculptures in his Dymaxion House, a design intended to be mass-produced and a solution to the housing shortcomings of the time. Surrounded by forward thinking artists and European émigrés, Asawa finally found some respite from the discrimination she had dealt with her entire life.
During her summer break of 1947, she embarked on an important trip to Mexico, once again sponsored by the Quakers. The wire baskets used at local markets to hold eggs, fruits and vegetables caught Asawa’s eye, and on that same trip, she learned to crochet and weave from Mexican basket makers – a technique Asawa would employ throughout her career and for which she is celebrated.
Back at Black Mountain, Asawa continued to experiment with her wire crochet, as well as take part in performances such as an avant-garde dance to Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring” with fellow student Robert Rauschenberg, running through the campus with torches in hand. Among her peers was design student Albert Lanier, who would eventually become her husband. Romance sparked between the two when they met “on a mountain path coming back from the school orchard, nicknamed the Garden of Eden,” according to their daughter Addie Lanier.
In 1949, Asawa, 23, and Lanier, 22, married and moved to San Francisco, believing the liberal city would be more open-minded to their interracial marriage. Lanier supported the family, which grew to include six children, with drafting jobs for architectural firms, while Asawa amplified her work with crocheted steel wire.
Her novel wire sculptures, at once biomorphic and industrial, began to gain notice, earning Asawa solo and group shows at venues including the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Oakland Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Human-scaled and suggestive of the body and other organic forms, Asawa said of her sculptures: “I can see glimpses of my childhood in my work. The seemingly endless patterns we made in the dust, the shapes of the flowers and the vegetation, the translucence of a dragonfly’s wing when sunlight pours through it—these things have influenced my work.”
On the farm where she grew up, she and her brothers and sisters would sit on the back of the moving pickup truck and drag their feet on the dirt below: “We made endless hourglass figures that i now see as the forms within forms in my crocheted wire sculptures.” Asawa also distinctly remembers the phenomenon of sunshine upon an iridescent dragonfly, and the play of light that seemed to make the wings disappear. In a review from April 29. 1958, The New York Times picked up on that imagery and described the “gossamer lightness” of the sculptures and how “the wire dematerializes when the pendant sculptures are turned. The circular and oval shapes seem like magic lanterns, one within the other.”
Wanting to impact larger audiences, Asawa began to create public sculpture, including the initially controversial Andrea (1968), a fountain in the form of a breast-feeding mermaid, perched in Ghiradelli Square. The figural imagery seemed unlikely, coming from a modern artist, and the sculpture set off a debate regarding feminism, public art and aesthetics. Lawrence Halperin, the architect of the square and a fan of Asawa’s abstractions, complained that the mermaid looked like a “suburban lawn ornament.” To this, Asawa retorted: “For the old, it would bring back the fantasy of their childhood and for the young, it would give them something to remember when they grow old.” She may have been right after all, as the fountain is now beloved by residents and tourists, and Asawa is often referred to as the “fountain lady” for her many subsequent public works, including the origami-inspired Aurora (1986) on the San Francisco waterfront.
Asawa’s interest in community extended to include a four-year membership in the San Francisco Arts Commission, beginning in 1968, under which she petitioned public officials and charitable organizations to support public arts programs. In the 1970s, she also served on President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on Mental Health on “The Role of the Arts,” the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1982, Asawa focused her energy on setting up the School of the Arts (the school was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010).
Of her advocacy for the arts, Asawa said, “I’m primarily interested in making it possible for people to become as independent and self-sufficient as possible. Through the arts you can learn many, many skills that you cannot learn through books and problem-solving in the abstract. Art will make people better. […] It makes a person broader.”
In 1973, Asawa was awarded the first of many retrospectives at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The metal sculptures are large and impressive in scale, and yet, their woven, airy texture and flexible forms have approachability. Solid yet ethereal, their shadows cast an otherworldly beauty. The shapes they take are varied. Some seem almost feathered, with a delicate eyelash fringe, while others have a distinct outline in space. The artist explained her dedication to creating her signature forms in industrial wire: “I was interested in [the crocheted wire] because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent.”
Just as with her sculptures, Asawa’s life was much like a sieve through which art emerged in every aspect. Many of her colleagues and peers commented on the unusual and special degree to which her life and art were fused. Yet Asawa, ever humble, may have disagreed with that assessment. “An artist is not special,” she once said. “An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special. An artist looks at a juice bottle, an egg carton or a newspaper and sees something valuable in them.”