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Asawa's Life


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Read the timeline below to learn about Ruth Asawa's life.

1946-1949 – Becoming an Artist

Ruth at Black Mountain. Photo by Hazel Larsen.
Young Albert Lanier at Black Mountain, 1948.

Asawa attends Black Mountain College in North Carolina for three years. Her teachers include the painter Josef Albers, dancer Merce Cunningham, and architect/inventor Buckminster Fuller. Black Mountain College gives Ruth self-confidence and the courage to pursue a career as an artist. In the summer of 1947, she returns to Mexico on a trip sponsored by the Quakers. She learns techniques for crocheting baskets that she will experiment with in the following decade in her wire sculptures. Asawa meets her future husband, an architecture and design student named Albert Lanier.


Color Study. Dancers in Red. 18.5 x 19.5. 1948 or 1949.
Ruth and Janet Barber in Toluca, Mexico, 1947.

1949 – Marriage

Asawa leaves Black Mountain to join Lanier in San Francisco, where they marry against the wishes of their families. They decide to live in San Francisco, a city that they believe will be more hospitable to an interracial couple, and a place that has a vibrant arts community. Their first home is a loft above an onion warehouse. Ruth is 23; Albert is 22.

1950-1959 – Children

Ruth holding Aiko, Albert holding Xavier, 1951.

The Laniers have six children: Xavier (1950), Aiko (1950), Hudson (1952), Adam (1956), Addie (1958), and Paul (1959). Ruth draws, paints, experiments with paper, and continues her experimentation with crocheted wire sculpture while she raises her six children. She and Albert struggle to make ends meet financially. They begin a life-long friendship with the photographer Imogen Cunningham. They try their hand at designing for industry, but are offended at the business practices. Ruth works at home in her studio, often at night and in the early morning while her children sleep. She begins to receive recognition for her crocheted wire sculpture, and decides to continue developing her own work in her home and raise her children. Albert supports the family through his long hours as a draftsman for various architectural firms, taking architectural jobs on the side.


Ruth, Albert and friend Merry Renk in Sonoma County, 1950.
The six children, Adam, Hudson, Paul, Aiko, Addie, Xavier, 1964.

1953-Now – Exhibitions

Ruth at her 1973 Retrospective Exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Photo by Laurence Cuneo.

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. In 1962, she begins experimenting with tied-wire and electroplating techniques. In 1965, she receives a Tamarind Lithography Workshop Fellowship that allows her to spend two months in Los Angeles making prints with master printmakers. She has 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), the Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, 2007) and the Japan Society (New York, 2007).


1965-2002 – Commissions

Aurora, Bayside Plaza, 1986.

Asawa begins competing for and receiving commissions to make public art. Her most famous public sculptures are Andrea, the mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square (1966); the Hyatt on Union Square Fountain (1973); the Buchanan Mall (Nihonmachi) Fountains (1976); Aurora, the origami-inspired fountain on the San Francisco waterfront (1986); and the Japanese-American Internment Memorial Sculpture in San Jose (1994).

Andrea, Ghirardelli Square, Cast Bronze, 1968.

Most of these commissions, which are either cast or fabricated from metal, allow Ruth to employ assistants and to collaborate with other artists, foundry workers, and sheet metal workers. The fees for the commissions give her the financial freedom to experiment with different ideas. In 2002, she collaborates in the making of the Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State University. Working with landscape artists, Ruth’s idea is to bring large boulders from each of the ten camps where the Japanese were interned.

1968-2002 – Work in the Public Schools

Students working in the Alvarado School Garden.

Asawa joins Sally Woodbridge and other parents to co-found the Alvarado Arts Workshop (her three youngest children are attending Alvarado). With limited financial support, they begin with throwaway objects — milk cartons, egg cartons, scrap fabric — and bring artists in to work with the students. She formulates a teaching philosophy based on her personal experience: children develop as creative thinkers and problem solvers by practicing art and gardening.

With the arrival of busing in San Francisco, the Alvarado program spreads to other schools as parents follow their children. In 1973, Asawa is instrumental in organizing the Music, Art, Dance, Drama, and Science (MADDS) Festival, which becomes an annual citywide youth arts festival sponsored by schools, civic leaders, neighborhood groups and the museums.

Students from SOTA working on a Noh mask in clay.

In 1982, Asawa focuses her energy on building a public high school for the arts, School of the Arts (SOTA) High School. Her dream is to house SOTA in the heart of civic center so that it is in close proximity to San Francisco's world class cultural organizations — the San Francisco Opera, Ballet, Museum of Modern Art, the Asian Art Museum, American Conservatory Theater, the Main Library, and the Symphony. Students will be able to attend a public high school where the standards are high and where they can achieve their own individual potential — as artists, as future parents, and as community members — whether they go on to become professional artists are not. Like her teacher Albers, she wants students to learn to SEE, and believes that a garden is essential for the experience. In 2010 the school was named for Ruth and is now the Ruth Asawa SF School of the Arts.


1968-2000 – Advocacy for the Arts

Asawa is appointed for a four-year term to the San Francisco Arts Commission by Mayor Joseph Alioto (1968). She serves on President Carter’s Commission on Mental Health on “The Role of the Arts” (1974), the California Arts Council (1976), and the National Endowment for the Arts (1977). In 1989, she becomes a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and serves for eight years.

1985

Asawa is diagnosed with lupus and loses a year to serious illness and recovery. She never regains her former strength, although the disease remains in remission. In 2002, she reduces her public engagements due to her declining health.

Asawa with her life casts of friends. Photo by Terry Schmidt.

Awards

1968
First Dymaxion Award for Artist/Scientist
1974
Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects
1982
Ruth Asawa Day (February 12) in San Francisco
1990
San Francisco Chamber of Commerce Cyril Magnin Award
1993
Honor Award from the Women's Caucus for the Arts
1995
Asian American Art Foundations Golden Ring Lifetime Achievement Award

Degrees

1974
Honorary Doctorate, California College of Arts and Crafts
1996
Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, San Francisco Art Institute
1998
Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, San Francisco State University
1998
Bachelor of Fine Arts, Milwaukee State Teachers College (University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee)


Asawa in her living room in San Francisco with her sculptures all around her.

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