Ruth Asawa

Name Ruth Asawa
Born January 24 1926
Died August 5 2013
Birth Location Norwalk, California
Generational Identifier


Ruth Aiko Asawa (1926–2013) was a renowned sculptor, painter, and printmaker acclaimed for her biomorphic wire forms and public art installations as well as her activism in public art education.

Early Life and Wartime Incarceration

She was born in the farming community of Norwalk, California, on January 24, 1926, to Japanese immigrant parents, Umakichi and Haru Asawa. She was the fourth of seven children. "I can see glimpses of my childhood in my work," she said in later years. "We used to make patterns in the dirt, hanging our feet off the horse-drawn farm equipment. We made endless hourglass figures that I now see as the forms within forms in my crocheted wire sculptures." [1] Asawa showed an aptitude for art at an early age. Her painting of a polar bear was put up for display in 1935 and her third-grade teacher encouraged her artistic talent. In 1939, she won a school art competition with her drawing of the Statue of Liberty. On Saturdays, she attended a community Japanese language and cultural school, where she practiced calligraphy.

Although Asawa had hoped to attend one of two prominent art schools in Los Angeles—the Chouinard Art Institute or the Otis Art Institute—World War II and the signing of Executive Order 9066 changed everything. She was only sixteen years old in February 1942 when her father, Umakichi, was arrested by FBI agents and separated from his family for the next six years. A few months later, her mother had to orchestrate the closing of the farm and packing what few belongings they could carry alone, when she and the children were forcibly removed from their home in Norwalk. They first moved into the racetracks at Santa Anita , and later, into a more permanent camp in Rohwer , Arkansas. Ruth became the art editor of the class yearbook, and graduated from Rohwer High School in 1943.

It is not typical for artists to begin their careers in incarceration, but despite the hardship, Asawa not only absorbed lessons from her time in camp—she first learned weaving as a volunteer camouflage net maker, and picked up the sumi brush during art classes—she flourished. From camp, she applied and was admitted to the Milwaukee State Teachers College on a scholarship sponsored by the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC), an initiative of the American Friends Service Committee , where she studied drawing, painting, printmaking, and jewelry, with the intent to become a schoolteacher. To support her education, Asawa found work as a domestic servant and by work in a tanning factory. In 1945, she and her sister Lois traveled to Mexico City to study Spanish and Mexican art.

A Career in Art

When she was discouraged from continuing her teaching credentials, due to the anti-Japanese prejudices that made it difficult for Nisei to find work, she decided instead to enroll at the Black Mountain experimental art school based in North Carolina. Asawa eventually spent three transformative years at Black Mountain under the guidance and instruction of major art figures such as painter Josef Albers, dancer Merce Cunningham, and architect Buckminister Fuller. According to Asawa, "Black Mountain gave you the right to do anything you wanted to do." [2] In 1947, Asawa returned to Mexico on a trip sponsored again by the Quakers, where she observed indigenous artist techniques for crocheting baskets, which would inspire later work in wire. 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." [3]

In 1949, against their parents' wishes, Asawa moved to San Francisco and married fellow Black Mountain student Albert Lanier, who would establish a career as an architect. Throughout the 1950s, she experimented with her painting, drawing, origami, welding, textile, and above all, her innovative hanging crocheted wire forms. Asawa began exhibiting her sculptures, paintings, and drawings in solo and group shows in 1953 and has held major solo retrospective exhibits at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1973), the Fresno Art Center (1978 and 2001), the Oakland Museum (2002), the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum (2006), and the Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, 2007). Her most famous public sculptures are "Andrea," the mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square (1966); the Hyatt on Union Square Fountain (1973); the "Buchanan Mall (Nihonmachi) Fountains" (1976); "Aurora," the origami-inspired fountain on the San Francisco waterfront (1986); "History of Wine" (1988), a fountain at Beringer Winery in St. Helena, the "Japanese-American Internment Memorial Sculpture" in San Jose (1994). [4] She also served as guest faculty at San Francisco State University, where she worked with landscape architects to create the outdoor "Garden of Remembrance" (2002), which features large boulders placed in the garden from each of the ten main camps where the Japanese were incarcerated during World War II, and an interior installation entitled DNA Studies, in collaboration with college students, high school students, and elders.

In early 2013, Asawa's Union Square fountain was threatened with demolition in plans unveiled for a proposed computer retail store. However, after furious public protest, the city rejected the business' construction plans and told the company to redo them to ensure that the fountain survives. As of August 26, 2013, new architectural plans for the store revealed that the beloved fountain would be spared and remain on site. [5]

Activism and Awards

In addition to carrying a full career as an artist and an activist, her marriage to Albert never floundered, and together they raised six children: Xavier (1950), Aiko (1950), Hudson (1952), Adam (1956), Addie (1958), and Paul (1959). Inspired by her own children's hunger for creative instruction, she became a major force in founding public arts education for San Francisco children and was an instrumental part of the Alvarado Arts Workshop, the annual Music, Art, Dance, Drama, and Science (MADDS) Festival, and the 1973 federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program. She helped found SCRAP, an art material recycling program for teachers and artists, in 1976, fearlessly defended the preservation of murals, and promoted inter-generational workshops and the vital importance of gardens. She was also central to the creation of the San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA) High School in 1982. In 2010, SOTA was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.

Asawa served on the San Francisco Arts Commission (1968), the board of trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (1989), the American Conservatory Theater, the California Arts Council (1976), and nationally on President Carter's Commission on Mental Health on "The Role of the Arts" (1974) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1977). She received honorary doctorates from San Francisco State University, the San Francisco Art Institute and California College of the Arts and in 1999 she received the Bachelor of Arts degree from the Milwaukee State Teachers College that she had been denied as a student in 1946. Asawa has been acknowledged in the local press as "San Francisco's best-loved artist." [6] In 1982, February 12 was declared Ruth Asawa Day in San Francisco.

Asawa died in the predawn hours on August 6, 2013, at her home in San Francisco at age 87.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

Baker, Kenneth. "California Sculptor Ruth Asawa Dies." San Francisco Chronicle , August 6, 2013. .

Hauseur, Krystal Reiko. "Crafted Abstraction: Three Nisei Artists and the American Studio Craft Movement: Ruth Asawa, Kay Sekimachi, and Toshiko Takaezu." Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Irvine, 2011.

Harris, Mary Emma. The Arts at Black Mountain College. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987.

Martin, Douglas. "Ruth Asawa, an Artist Who Wove Wire, Dies at 87." New York Times , August 17, 2013. .

Ruth Asawa artist website .

Archives of American Art: Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albet Lanier, June 21-July 5, 2002. .

Ruth Asawa: A Retrospective View . San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1973.

Ruth Asawa: Of Forms and Growth . Documentary film directed by Robert Snyder. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Masters & Masterworks, 1978. 30 minutes. .

"Visionary Sculptor Ruth Asawa Dies at 87." Rafu Shimpo. August 7, 2013. .

Spark segment on Ruth Asawa. San Francisco: KQED TV, May 2005. 10 minutes. .

Urbanelli, Elisa, and Daniel Cornell, editors. The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.


  1. Harris, Mary Emma, "Black Mountain College," The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 66.
  2. Archives of American Art: Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albet Lanier, June 21-July 5, 2002, accessed July 27, 2013, .
  3. Douglas Martin, "Ruth Asawa, an Artist Who Wove Wire, Dies at 87," New York Times , August 17, 2013, accessed July 27, 2013, .
  4. Ruth Asawa website, accessed August 6, 2013, .
  5. John King, "Apple Store's new design preserves fountain", San Francisco Chronicle , August 26, 2013, accessed July 27, 2013, .
  6. Gordon H. Chang, Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, editors, Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970 (Stanford University Press, 2008), 293.

Last updated June 18, 2020, 8:43 p.m..