How’s this for an artist’s CV? Spent childhood working on family farm. Spent time in prison camp. Attended avant-garde art school. Learned to make wire baskets, incorporating looped wire technique into her sculptures. Married a fellow student (wedding ring designed by Buckminster Fuller). Moved to San Francisco. Had six children in nine years. Had solo and group shows in New York but ceased exhibiting there because of shipping difficulties. Had solo show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Invented recipe for making baker’s clay from flour, salt and water for her children’s art projects, a mixture that became widely used in schools. Designed fountains, murals and sculptures as public commissions. Co-founded an organization to embed artists-in-residence at San Francisco public schools. Co-founded Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts (SCRAP), which collected, recycled and distributed art materials otherwise destined for landfill to artists, schools and community groups. Led a movement to establish San Francisco’s first public arts high school (it would later be renamed for her). Had major museum retrospective and insisted that each of her children and grandchildren contribute a work to the exhibition. Lived to see one of her sculptures sell for more than a million dollars at auction.
Such is a brief summary of the improbable and awe-inspiring life of Ruth Asawa (1926-2013). Not well known to the American art public, Asawa’s work is even less well known in Europe. On the occasion of a retrospective exhibition of her work in England and Norway, the show’s co-curators, Emma Ridgway and Vibece Salthe, have edited a book of essays about her life, “Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe.”
Asawa was born in Norwalk, Calif., to Japanese immigrant parents who farmed on rented land, as Asian immigrants were forbidden by California law to own farmland. Her artistic talents were recognized by her grade school teachers, but she was first instructed by professional artists in an unlikely setting: the internment camp where Asawa and her family were incarcerated at the beginning of World War II. Japanese American artists in the camp who had worked as animators for Walt Disney gave art classes to other prisoners.
The camp may have had another effect on Asawa’s career: Internees were put to work creating camouflage netting for the military, inserting strips of green and brown cloth into mesh. John R. Blakinger, one of the book’s contributors, compares the labor involved in making such nets to the construction of Asawa’s basket-like hanging wire sculptures: “In both processes, the hands work quickly, methodically, intuitively, constructing a mesh-like lattice that merges form and space, positive and negative, figure and ground.”
Released from the camp in 1943, Asawa was allowed to study at Milwaukee State Teachers College for three years, only to be told that she could not finish the certification program, as no school would accept a teacher trainee of Japanese heritage. When some artist friends told her about a new art school in the hills of North Carolina, Black Mountain College, she enrolled in 1946. With her formidable work ethic, she fell naturally into its collegial, communal atmosphere. Asawa later said, “My teachers at Black Mountain College were practicing artists, including Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky, and Buckminster Fuller. They taught me that there is no separation between studying, performing the daily chores of living, and creating one’s own work.” Fuller would become a lifelong friend.
Asawa fell in love with another student at the college, an aspiring architect named Albert Lanier, and the couple married in 1949, only a year after the California Supreme Court ruled that state laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Settling in San Francisco, they began the production of countless art projects and six babies, eventually settling in a rambling home in San Francisco’s Noe Valley.
The book features an interview with four of her children, which gives some idea of their family life. Asawa expected the children to help with household chores, gardening and preparing artistic materials, including spooling wire for her sculptures. They would continue to assist her later in life, from preparing models for casting to writing grant proposals
The hanging wire sculptures are Asawa’s most sought-after works today. (One went for more than $5 million in 2020.) They were a fortuitous choice, suited to the time constraints of a mother of young children. A generation earlier, painter Marguerite Zorach had briefly concentrated her energies on embroidered works, where the design could be quickly sketched and the picture completed, stitch by stitch, whenever there were a few quiet minutes to spare from children and household duties. In the same way, Asawa’s sculptures could be completed as time permitted, although, as she liked to say, “Insomnia is nothing more than a fear of losing time.”
“Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe” is an inspiring story of a life well lived, complete with happy ending. Along with deep dives into art and design, it includes recipes for making potato prints, baker’s clay and milk-carton sculptures, things she taught countless students. “When you put a seed in the ground, the seed doesn’t say, ‘Well, it’s eight hours, I’m going to stop growing,’ ” Asawa once said. “That’s why I think that every minute we’re attached to the earth, we should be doing something.” An admirable motto, one by which she truly lived.
Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.
Citizen of the Universe
By Emma Ridgway, Vibece Salthe, Sigrun Åsebø, John R. Blakinger and Emily Pringle
Thames & Hudson. 192 pp. $40
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