Born in 1926 in Norwalk, Asawa and her family made a living as farmers until World War II, when they were sent to camps along with other Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. There, Asawa pursued her interest in art, getting lessons from fellow camp inmates.
Following 16 months of incarceration, Asawa received a scholarship to Milwaukee State Teachers College, where she studied to become an art teacher. Three years later, she was prevented from doing her student teaching because of her Japanese heritage. Undeterred, she transferred to the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It was there that she blossomed as an artist and met the architect Albert Lanier, whom she would marry and start a family with, raising six children together.
Adapting methods she learned in Mexico, where people made wire baskets for domestic use, Asawa used similar techniques to create the looped wire sculptures she became known for. Asked to name her inspirations, she spoke of “plants, the spiral shell of a snail, seeing light through insect wings, watching spiders repair their webs in the early morning, and seeing the sun through the droplets of water suspended from the tips of pine needles while watering my garden.”
While some critics dismissed her art as “feminine handiwork” early on, Asawa’s reputation has grown over time. Her legacy lives on in public commissions in California as well as museums and galleries around the globe. Known in San Francisco for her fountains in Ghirardelli Square, Union Square and Japantown, she designed the Japanese American Internment Memorial Sculpture in San Jose in 1994 as well as San Francisco State University’s Garden of Remembrance, which includes boulders from the 10 War Relocaiton Authority camps.
Asawa also advocated for arts education for kids, including the creation of a public arts high school that was later renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. Since 1982, the City of San Francisco has also declared Feb. 12 to be Ruth Asawa Day — a fitting tribute to a woman who lived according to her belief that “art will make people better.”
She passed away on Aug. 6, 2013 at the age of 87.
Ruth Asawa with her son (and fellow artist) Paul Lanier. (Hokubei Mainichi)
The children of Asawa, who partnered with Google on this project, shared their thoughts on their mother’s legacy:
“Our mother was first, and foremost, a teacher. She loved to teach us lessons, especially the habit of hard work and the importance of creative problem-solving. Hers was a life lived in a large, diverse community where the boundaries between making art, family, cooking delicious meals, activism, and compassion for those less fortunate merged into one never-ending cycle. She often worked late at night while we slept.
“She once explained, ‘When you put a seed in the ground, the ground doesn’t say, “Well, it’s eight hours, I’m going to stop growing.” You put it in the soil, and that bulb grows every second it is attached to the Earth. I think that every minute we are attached to this Earth we should be doing something.’
“As a young woman at Black Mountain College, she was fortunate to study with professional artists who expected her to think as an individual. It was the quality of this experience that mattered to her, where each person contributed but kept their own integrity. It’s like the design of her looped wire sculptures, which share the space they live in. ‘I am able to take a wire line and go into the air and define the air without stealing from anyone. A line can enclose and define space while letting the air remain air.’
“She was proud of her work in public education – encouraging artists in the schools and the public arts high school which she helped create and bears her name – The Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.
“In an interview taken in her 70s, she offered some advice: ‘It’s important to learn how to use your small bits of time, your five minutes, your ten minutes. All those begin to count up…Don’t wait until your children are grown, until your husband is retired…Learn how to use your snatches of time when they are given to you.’”