Work of the Week – March 16, 2015

Friday, May 29, 2015

by Sadie Barner

Ruth Asawa

This week’s Work of the Week is Basket by Ruth Asawa.

“Art is for everybody. It is not something that you should have to go to the museums in order to see and enjoy. When I work on big projects, such as a fountain, I like to include people who haven’t yet developed their creative side — people yearning to let their creativity out.”

This week’s work is by an artist who is both inspiring and talented. Ruth Asawa was a Japanese-American born on January 24th, 1926. She was the 4th of seven children. Her parents were truck farmers, growing season fruits. At the time of her birth, her parents were unable to own land or become United States citizens because of anti-Japanese laws. She spent her childhood helping with her family’s farm. Her mother would give her tasks requiring her to work alone because, according to her mother, she was an argumentative child. However, Asawa enjoyed the time to daydream. Even as a child, she was talented at art. Her third-grade teacher noticed her talent and encouraged her to pursue art. Later in 1939, she won a drawing competition at her school.

Hardship and tragedy would strike Asawa’s life. In 1942, her father was arrested by the FBI; Asawa would not see him again until 1948. Shortly after her father’s arrest, Asawa and her family was interned at the Santa Anita Race Track. Despite the horrific actions of the U.S. government, Asawa was able to turn this event around. Instead of having to work on her family’s farm, she now had free time to spend studying drawing and painting. Her fellow interned included animators from Walt Disney Studios. The animators held classes in the horse stalls. Asawa’s family was moved a second time to Rohwer, Arkansas. Asawa became the art editor for her high school year book. She was able to get a scholarship from Quaker and studied to be an art teacher at Milwaukee State Teachers College in Wisconsin. The scholarship allowed her to leave the internment camp early and she did not see her family again until 1948.

To pay her way through school, Asawa worked at a tanning factory and as a domestic servant. She was able to travel to Mexico City to study Spanish and Mexican art in 1945. However, Asawa was unable to complete her degree. Her degree required that she practice-teach. The college was unable to find her a position because of the remaining ill-will towards Japanese-Americans. Yet again Asawa managed to change the rough circumstances life had handed her into a positive. Asawa went on to study at Black Mountain College. She stayed there for three years and was taught by Josef Albers, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller. She gained a lot from Black Mountain College; most notably, she gained the self-confidence and courage to purse a career as an artist. She also learned how to crochet baskets, a skill that she would later employ with wire. These wire baskets would ultimately lead to her fame.

Asawa met Albert Lanier at Black Mountain College. They moved to California and married, despite their families’ wishes, and society’s views on interracial couples. Together they had six children. During this time, Asawa drew, painted, experimented with paper, began experimenting with crocheted wire sculpture (much like the picture above) and raised six children. She would work in her study at night and early mornings while her children were still asleep. This is an incredible amount of work for one person. Asawa was dedicated to her art and would soon be noticed.

Asawa’s wire crocheted sculptures were noticed and she was exhibited in museums including the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Oakland Art Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1965, Asawa began receiving and completing commissions for public artwork, including her mermaid fountain Andrea in Ghirardelli Square and Aurora a origami inspired fountain. Asawa began advocating for art and art education. She co-founded Alvarado Arts Workshop at her children’s school. She then helped organize the Musix, Arts, Dance, Drama, and Science (MADDS) Festival. Her biggest goal was the creation of a School of the Arts High School, that high school was recently renamed Ruth Asawa SF School of the Arts.

In 1985, Asawa was diagnosed with Lupus and spent a year fighting the disease. Despite the fact that the disease went into remission, Asawa limited her public involvement for health reasons. She died in her sleep at the dawn of August 6, 2013 at 87 years of age. Ruth Asawa was a spectacular woman who fought with adversity, poverty and hardship. At every turn of her life, she was creating opportunities instead of excuses. She believed that art was a part of life that belong to everyone, and that art could make people better. Despite being interned, or being unable to complete her degree, or struggling to raise six children as an artist, Ruth Asawa succeeded.

Basket is the beginning of a successful art career. Created in 1948, it might have been one of Asawa’s first experimentation with wire crocheting. It is the beginning of future sculptures that would make Asawa famous. Her later work, would take this original bulbous basket and connect it to other baskets, or put baskets inside of other baskets. Her story, and the fact that this work is the beginning of it, is not only amazing but motivational.

Artwork above: Ruth Asawa, Basket, 1948-49, Woven Copper Wire, 4.50 x 7.5 x 7.75  inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by the 2010 Collectors’ Circle and Fran Myers.. Black Mountain College Collection. 2011.01.02.58.