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 Ruth Lanier Asawa  (1926 - 2013)

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Lived/Active: California/North Carolina      Known for: woven wire sculpture-fountains, figure drawing, graphics

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Ruth Asawa Lanier is primarily known as Ruth Lanier Asawa

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Ruth (Ruth Asawa Lanier) Asawa
from Auction House Records.
Untitled (S.108 Hanging, Six-Lobed, Multi-Layered Continuous Form Within a Form)
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is The New York Times obituary of the artist.

Ruth Asawa, an Artist Who Wove Wire, Dies at 87

By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: August 17, 2013

Her daughter Aiko Cuneo confirmed the death.

Ms. Asawa had been shunted from one detention camp to another as a child before blossoming under the tutelage of the artists Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Franz Kline and Josef Albers. Gaining notice in the art world while still a student, she soon began building a wider following with abstract wire sculptures that expressed both the craftsmanship she had learned from Mexican basket makers as well as her ambition to extend line drawings into a third dimension. Many of these were hanging mobiles.

In 1968 she startled her admirers by creating her first representational work, a fountain in Ghirardelli Square on San Francisco’s waterfront. It had two mermaids — one nursing a “merbaby” — frogs, turtles, splashing water and a recording of frogs croaking.

Lawrence Halprin, the distinguished landscape architect who designed the waterfront space, had planned to install an abstract fountain. But after a long, unexplained delay, the developer chose Ms. Asawa for the job. Her creation set off a freewheeling debate about aesthetics, feminism and public art. Mr. Halprin, who had been a fan of Ms. Asawa’s abstractions, complained that the mermaids looked like a suburban lawn ornament.

Ms. Asawa countered with old-fashioned sentiment. “For the old, it would bring back the fantasy of their childhood,” she said, “and for the young, it would give them something to remember when they grow old.”

By and large, San Franciscans loved it. Ms. Asawa went on to design other public fountains and became known in San Francisco as the “fountain lady.” For a work in a plaza near Union Square, she mobilized 200 schoolchildren to mold hundreds of images of the city in dough, which were then cast in iron.

The work became the locus of a dispute this summer with Apple Inc., which wanted to remove the sculpture to make way for a plaza adjacent to a store it is building. After a public outcry, the company and the city promised to protect the sculpture, but the final disposition of the piece remains unresolved.

Ms. Asawa’s wire sculptures are in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In May, one of her pieces sold at auction at Christie’s for $1.4 million, four times its appraised value.

After the M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco opened a new building in 2005, it installed 15 of Ms. Asawa’s most significant hanging wire sculptures at the base of its tower. As they drift with air currents, her large organic forms have been said to resemble a giant, eerie kelp forest.

Her work is inextricably linked to her life. “Glimpses of my childhood” inspired her, she once said. One memory, of sunlight pouring through a dragonfly’s translucent wing, was transmuted into the crocheted wire sculptures for which she first became known. In 1958, The New York Times wrote of their “gossamer lightness” and the way “the circular and oval shapes seem like magic lanterns, one within the other.”

Ms. Asawa said another influence came from riding on the back of horse-drawn farm equipment on the fruit and vegetable farms where her Japanese-American parents worked in California. She made patterns with her feet as they dragged on the ground.

“We made endless hourglass figures that I now see as the forms within forms in my crocheted wire sculptures,” she said in an interview with The Contra Costa Times in 2006.

A third influence — one she insisted was positive — was being held in internment camps with her family during the war, a fate that befell 120,000 Japanese-Americans, rounded up by the federal government for fear that they might aid the enemy. Her family spent the first five months of detention in stables at the Santa Anita Park racetrack. It was there that three animators from the Walt Disney Studios taught her to draw.

“I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one,” she said in 1994. “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.”

Ruth Aiko Asawa was born on Jan. 24, 1926, in Norwalk, a Southern California farming town. Her third-grade teacher encouraged her artwork, and in 1939, her drawing of the Statue of Liberty took first prize in a school competition to represent what it means to be an American.

In 1942 F.B.I. agents seized her father and sent him to an internment camp in New Mexico. Ms. Asawa did not see him for six years. Two months later, she, her mother and her five siblings were taken to the racetrack. After five months, they were taken to a camp in Arkansas, where Ms. Asawa graduated from high school.

In 1943, a Quaker organization arranged for her to attend Milwaukee State Teachers College, now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to prepare to be an art teacher. She completed three years but was unable to earn her degree after being barred from a required student-teacher program because of her ethnicity.

Ms. Asawa then spent three years at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a magnet for budding artists and renowned teachers. There she befriended the choreographer Merce Cunningham and studied painting with Albers, whose theories on color were immensely influential. While still a student of his, in 1948, she caught the attention of a reviewer for The Times, who observed that her work “transformed Albers’ color-shape experiments into personal fantasy.”

Ms. Asawa had started exploring wire as an artistic medium after a trip to Mexico in 1947, when she noticed looped wire baskets being used in the markets to sell eggs and produce.

“I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out,” she explained. “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.”

Ms. Asawa wore bandages to protect her hands when working with wire, but still suffered constant cuts. When young, her children were usually at her side while she worked.

Her husband of 59 years, Albert Lanier, an architect she met at Black Mountain, died in 2008. Their son Adam died in 2003. In addition to her daughter, Ms. Cuneo, she is survived by her sons, Xavier, Hudson and Paul Lanier; her daughter Addie Lanier; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Ms. Asawa supported arts education in San Francisco public schools, and in 2011, the one to which she was most devoted was renamed for her. For years Ms. Asawa maintained the grounds herself.

Her own educational experience came full circle in 1998, when the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which had prevented her from graduating a half-century earlier when it was a teachers college, sought to present her with an honorary doctorate. Ms. Asawa asked that she be awarded the bachelor’s degree instead.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Ruth Asawa has combined artistic creativity with involvement in community and family life.  She is the creator of major sculpture commissions including five large fountains in San Francisco.  Her woven wire sculptures are in major collections such as the Whitney Museum.  She is an art educator and was the inventor of a new sculptural medium, baker's dough, which even kindergarten children can use.

Asawa has been a member of the San Francisco Art Commission, the Bart Art Council, The National Endowment for the Arts Education Panel, and the California State Council.  While creating her murals and major sculptures, she is known for finding ways to involve not only other artists, but also school children in her projects.

The circumstances of Ruth Asawa's background were less than auspicious.  She was born in Southern California of Japanese-American parents, small farmers who worked long hours and barely made a living during the Depression.  From a very early age she liked to draw and wanted to be an artist an ambition that everyone but her Zen Buddhist parents discouraged as impractical.  When World War II came, the family was uprooted and interned in a camp in Arkansas.

In the camp were several Japanese artists who had worked at Disney Studios.  With lots of time on their hands, they taught drawing all day and into the night, and so Asawa received a unique art education when she was still of high school age.  After finishing high school, she was permitted to leave the internment camp to attend Milwaukee State Teachers' College in Wisconsin where she obtained a teaching credential in art.  But after three years of study, she was told that school districts refused to hire her because she was Japanese and the U.S. was still at war with Japan.

As a result, Awawa abandoned the idea of teaching and decided to study art at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, under such inspiring teachers as Josef and Anni Albers and Buckminster Fuller.  Her later interest in pure structural form may be attributed to the Bauhaus influence of her three years with these teachers.  At Black Mountain, she met Albert Lanier, an architect, and married him in 1949. Asawa left Black Mountain after her marriage and has lived and worked in San Francisco ever since.  The Lanier's have six children.

In the 1950s, she achieved recognition for her woven wire sculptures, airy constructivist forms that resemble dandelions, and other forms in nature that are often suspended, casting beautiful filigree shadows on the wall behind them.  These tubular knit, or mesh, works were pioneering efforts, ahead of the present wave of woven forms, and were acclaimed when they were exhibited at the Whitney Museum (1958), the Museum of Modern Art (1959), at New York's Peridot Gallery (1954, 1956, 1958), and at the San Francisco Museum of Art.

Asawa's involvement in the San Francisco community the state from which she had been forcibly expatriated eighteen years before was total and enthusiastic.  Her Mermaid Fountain (1968) is the focal point of the city's Ghirardelli Square, and her giant, round cityscape-in-bronze created in 1973 encases the fountain in front of the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Union Square.  Sculpted by Asawa with the help of artist friends, relatives (her mother and daughter), and school children, it shows the key attractions of the city in imaginative fantasy reliefs. Her newest fountain in Japan Town is based on forms of Japanese origami (paper folding).

A major focus of Asawa's life has been art education.  She has fought for larger budgets for teaching art to schoolchildren, and she has created mural projects and sculptural projects in which school children can participate.

When the San Francisco Museum of Art held a Ruth Asawa retrospective in 1973, she introduced the idea of a "dough-in", and one thousand youngsters took up her invitation to do baker's clay sculpture at the museum.  In 1976, the San Francisco Art Commission bestowed on her an honor award for her contribution to the city as artist, educator, and civic leader.  Recently, with glass artist Bruce Sherman, she has created a glass-and-wire sculpture. She is enthusiastic about collaborating and wants especially to work with graphic artists. "That's the really exciting thing," she has said, "collaborating. It is enriching for all of us."

(Information for the biography above is based on writings from the book, American Women Artists, by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein.)


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