Internationally recognized for her distinctive wire sculptures, pioneering artist Ruth Asawa left her mark on the landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area through her public commissions and on countless students through her activism on behalf of arts education.
Asawa frequently cited her memories of growing up on a farm in Norwalk, California, as inspiration for her work. Born in 1926 to Japanese immigrant parents, she was one of seven children. Working on the farm was hard, but it brought her close to nature. This connection appears throughout her career in her use of organic forms, including plants and flowers.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, all Japanese Americans on the West Coast were forced from their homes. Asawa’s father was sent into detention in New Mexico; the rest of the family was incarcerated at Santa Anita. There, Asawa got her first chance to study art, learning from Walt Disney Studio artists who were fellow incarcerees. Her family later was imprisoned at Rohwer, Arkansas, where she continued to draw and paint.
“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.”
Asawa (second from left) is shown here with her English teacher, Mrs. Beasley (standing) and other students at the Rohwer War Relocation Center. After graduating from high school, Asawa was released from the camp to attend college.
After three years attending teachers’ college, she learned that she would be denied a credential because of her Japanese ancestry. At the urging of close friends, she continued her education at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, her creativity blossomed as she studied under many of the leading lights of Modernism, including Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and Merce Cunningham.
“Albers always discouraged us to make a line with black and then fill it in because it kills the interaction of color. He discouraged us from using black as a color. The interaction of two colors, say orange and green, butting up right next to each other, was more exciting.” – Ruth Asawa
At Black Mountain, Asawa met architectural student Albert Lanier, whom she married in 1949. In San Francisco, the couple raised six children and built their careers.
Inspired by a 1947 trip to Mexico, Asawa incorporated basket-weaving techniques that she observed there into her own artistic practice. Over a half century, Asawa produced wire sculptures and works on paper whose innovative use of material and original form brought her growing acclaim. Her work has been exhibited widely since the early 1950s.
Asawa also became known for her public commissions in San Francisco and the wider Bay Area. These include the beloved fountains in Ghirardelli Square (1968) and outside the Grand Hyatt San Francisco (1973), the latter including hundreds of baker’s clay images molded by local schoolchildren, friends, and other artists cast in bronze.
Asawa was devoted to expanding access to arts education, believing that when children make art, they make “history for themselves.” She co-founded the Alvarado Arts Workshop in 1968, which at its peak was in 50 public schools in San Francisco. She also was instrumental in creating the city’s first public arts high school in 1982. It was renamed in her honor in 2010.
Continuing her work in public art, Asawa was commissioned by the City of San Jose to honor the over 110,000 Japanese Americans like her who were imprisoned by the United States during World War II. Completed in 1994, her bronze bas-relief visualizes the inhumanity of the incarceration camps and reminds viewers where fear of the “other” can lead.
In 1982, San Francisco declared February 12 “Ruth Asawa Day” in honor of her impact on the city’s art community. Her work is in the permanent collections of museums nationwide and earned solo exhibitions at the de Young Museum in 2006 and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in 2018. In 2020 the United States Postal Service featured her work on a set of Forever Stamps.
In 2007, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom honored Asawa with the first annual Mayor’s Art Award, recognizing her for a lifetime of achievement in the arts and public service.
Asawa died in 2013 at age 87. Her memorial was held outside the deYoung Museum, where she had spent time drawing with her children, and where 15 of her sculptures are on permanent display. She was a museum trustee and had built community support for its renovation. “Sculpture is like farming,” Asawa once said. “If you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.”