Ruth Asawa

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Ruth Asawa
File:Imogen Cunningham - Ruth Asawa.jpg
Asawa in 1952
Born Ruth Aiko Asawa[1]
(1926-01-24)January 24, 1926[1]
Norwalk, California[1]
Died August 5, 2013(2013-08-05) (aged 87)[2]
San Francisco, California[2]
Nationality American
Education Black Mountain College
Known for Sculpture

Ruth Asawa (January 24, 1926 – August 5, 2013) was an American sculptor. Known in San Francisco as the "fountain lady", her work is included in prominent art collections such as those of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney in New York.[3] She was a driving force behind the creation of the San Francisco School of the Arts,[3] which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010 in tribute to her.[4]


Early life and education

Asawa was born in 1926 in Norwalk, California, one of seven children. Her father operated a truck farm until the Japanese American internment during World War II. The family lived in the assembly center at the Santa Anita racetrack for much of 1942, then at Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas.[5]

Following her graduation from the internment center's high school, she attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, intending to become an art teacher. Unable to get hired for the requisite practice teaching to complete her degree, she left Wisconsin without a degree. (The degree was finally awarded to her in 1998.)[6]

From 1946 to 1949, she studied at Black Mountain College with Josef Albers.[7] Asawa learned to use commonplace materials from Albers, and she began experimenting with wire using a variety of techniques.[8]

Marriage and children

Asawa married architect Albert Lanier in July 1949. The couple had six children: Xavier (1950), Aiko (1950), Hudson (1952), Adam (1956), Addie (1958), and Paul (1959).


In the 1950s, Asawa experimented with crocheted wire sculptures of abstract forms that appear as three-dimensional line drawings. She learned the basic technique while in Toluca, Mexico, where villagers used a similar technique to make baskets from galvanized wire.

“I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.”

Asawa's wire sculptures brought her prominence in the 1950s, when her work appeared several times in the annual exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and in the 1955 São Paulo Art Biennial.[9]

In 1962, Asawa began experimenting with tied wire sculptures of images rooted in nature, geometry, and abstraction.[10] "Ruth was ahead of her time in understanding how sculptures could function to define and interpret space,” said Daniell Cornell, curator of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. “This aspect of her work anticipates much of the installation work that has come to dominate contemporary art.”[11]

In 1968, Asawa created her first representational work, a mermaid fountain in Ghirardelli Square on San Francisco’s waterfront, in which she mobilized 200 schoolchildren to mold hundreds of images of the city of San Francisco in dough, which were then cast in iron.[12] Over the years, she went on to design other public fountains and became known in San Francisco as the “fountain lady.”[13]

Public service and arts education activism

Asawa had a passionate commitment to and was an ardent advocate for art education as a transformative and empowering experience, especially for children.[14] In 1968, she was appointed to be a member of the San Francisco Arts Commission [15] and began lobbying politicians and charitable foundations to support arts programs that would benefit young children and average San Franciscans.[16] Asawa helped co-found the Alvarado Arts Workshop for school children in 1968.[16] In the early 1970s, this became the model for the Art Commission's CETA/Neighborhood Arts Program using money from the federal funding program, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which became a nationally replicated program employing artists of all disciplines to do public service work for the city. This was followed up in 1982 by building a public arts high school. The school was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor in 2010.[17] Asawa would go on to serve on the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976,[15] and from 1989-1997 she served as a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.[15]


Asawa died of natural causes on August 5, 2013 in her San Francisco, California home at the age of 87.[2]

Selected works

  • 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)
  • the Japanese-American Internment Memorial Sculpture in San Jose (1994).


  • 1968: First Dymaxion Award for Artist/Scientist
  • 1974: Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects
  • 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


  • Snyder, Robert, producer (1978) Ruth Asawa: On Forms and Growth. Pacific Palisades, cA: Masters and Masterworks Production.
  • Soe, Valerie, and Ruth Asawa directors (2003) Each One Teach One: The Alvarado School Art Program[citation needed]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 About Ruth Asawa – Birth Date: 01/24/1926, Country of Birth: Los Angeles (Norwalk)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Baker, Kenneth (August 6, 2013), "California sculptor Ruth Asawa dies", The San Francisco Chronicle<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 RELEASE: RUTH ASAWA Christie's; April 2, 2013.
  4. Jill Tucker; " S.F. school board votes to send pink out slips. San Francisco Chronicle; February 24, 2010.
  5. Ollman, Leach (2007-05-01). "The Industrious Line". Art in America.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Auer, James (1998-12-18). "Artist's return remedies a postwar injustice". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. NewsBank document ID 0EB82C32E269DCB3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "The College Died, but the Students Really Lived". The New York Times. 1992-03-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Ruth Asawa . Asawa's Art . Crocheted Wire Sculpture
  9. Baker, Kenneth (2006-11-18). "An overlooked sculptor's work weaves its way into our times". San Francisco Chronicle.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Ruth Asawa . Asawa's Art . Tied Wire Sculpture
  11. Cooper, Ashton (November 26, 2013) "Ruth Asawa's Late, Meteoric Rise From Obscurity." BlouinArtinfo. (Retrieved 6-12-2014.)
  13. Martin, Douglas (August 17, 2013), "Ruth Asawa, an Artist Who Wove Wire, Dies at 87", The New York Times<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2
  16. 16.0 16.1
  17. Romney, Lee (August 6, 2013), "Ruth Asawa, artist known for intricate wire sculptures, dies at 87", The Los Angeles Times<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Abrahamson, Joan and Sally Woodridge (1973) The Alvarado School Art Community Program. San Francisco: Alvarado School Workshop.
  • Bancroft Library (1990) "Ruth Asawa, Art, Competence and Citywide Cooperation for San Francisco," in The Arts and the Community Oral History Project. University of California, Berkeley.
  • Cook, Mariana (2000) Couples. Chronicle Books.
  • Cornell, Daniell et al. (2006) The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air. University of California Press.
  • Cunningham, Imogen (1970) Photographs, Imogen Cunningham. University of Washington Press.
  • Dobbs, Stephen (1981) Community and Commitment: An Interview with Ruth Asawa," in Art Education vol 34 no 5.
  • Faul, Patricia et al. (1995) The New Older Woman. Celestial Arts.
  • Harris, Mary Emma (1987) The Arts at Black Mountain College. MIT Press.
  • Hopkins, Henry and Mimi Jacobs (1982) 50 West Coast Artists. Chronicle Books.
  • Jepson, Andrea and Sharon Litsky (1976) The Alvarado Experience. Alvarado Art Workshop.
  • Rountree, Cathleen (1999) On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom. Jossey-Bass.
  • Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer (1992) American Women Sculptors. G.K. Hall.
  • San Francisco Museum of Art. (1973) Ruth Asawa: A Retrospective View. San Francisco Museum of Art.
  • Schatz, Howard (1992) Gifted Woman. Pacific Photographic Press.
  • Villa, Carlos et al. (1994) Worlds in Collision: Dialogues on Multicultural Art Issues. San Francisco Art Institute.
  • Woodridge, Sally (1973) Ruth Asawa’s San Francisco Fountain. San Francisco Museum of Art.

External links