Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2005. Ruth Asawa passed away on Aug. 6, 2013.
For more than five decades, sculptor Ruth Asawa has been associated with some of the most notable figures in American 20th-century art. As a young woman, she studied at the legendary Black Mountain College under Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller, alongside John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Anni Albers. In addition to producing an impressive body of work, Asawa has been a vocal advocate for arts education.
Asawa’s elegant cast bronze, stainless steel and glass-fiber reinforced sculptures have graced the Bay Area since 1968. As public works of art, their weight and permanence belie the importance of process to the artist, who obsessively manipulates materials to find forms translatable into large-scale works. For Asawa, the path that leads to the production of a finished piece is as important as the work itself. Two of Asawa’s large cast sculptures and fountains began as folded paper, others were modeled from baker’s clay, and her signature wire mesh had their beginnings when she learned a local metal looping technique while visiting Toluca, Mexico as a student volunteer in 1947.
Spark visited Asawa as she and her family assembled an expansive retrospective for the reopening of Golden Gate Park’s de Young Museum in October 2005. In preparation for this exhibition, Asawa’s daughter, Aiko Cuneo, had been busily organizing her mother’s work as well as selecting a variety of drawings and preparatory works. It is a labor of love for Cuneo, whose memories of childhood are interwoven with her mother’s constant art-making.
As a strong supporter of public arts education, Asawa helped found San Francisco’s only public high school devoted to the arts (renamed in 2010 as the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts) and spearheaded the Alvarado Arts Program, which brought working artists into San Francisco’s public schools. Asawa has fought hard to enhance the level of arts teaching and curriculum in San Francisco’s public schools. Activism in favor of arts education has become a tradition in Asawa’s family; at time of filming, her son, ceramicist Paul Lanier, was an artist-in-residence at Alvarado Elementary, where the Alvarado Arts Program originated. Lanier attended the school as a child.
Ruth Asawa left Black Mountain College in 1949. Her work has been exhibited internationally and can be found in major collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the de Young Museum; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; and Whitney Museum of American Art. She has received numerous awards, including the Fine Arts Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects and the Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts from the Women’s Caucus for Art. In 1982, Feb. 12 was declared Ruth Asawa Day in San Francisco.