Sunday, September 1, 2013

196: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ruth Asawa

Dear Followers,

On August 6th, the celebrated artist Ruth Aiko Asawa died in San Francisco, and I'd like to share a remarkable life story with you. Born in Norwalk, California on January 24th, 1926, she was the fourth of seven children born to Japanese immigrants who worked as truck farmers in California. They grew seasonal crops--strawberries, carrots, green onions and tomatoes--but were not allowed to become U.S citizens or to own land in California.

In 1935, Asawa's third grade teacher recognized and encouraged her artistic talent, and in 1939 she won a school competition by drawing the Statue of Liberty in a contest designed to represent what it meant to be an American (2: An Early Sense of Direction). As a young girl she attended a Saturday Japanese Cultural School, where she learned calligraphy and Japanese, but whenever she wasn't at school or working on the farm she would draw. Her mother would have her work alone because she was considered "argumentative"  (5:Life is Not A Popularity Contest), but Asawa liked doing chores by herself because she could daydream.

In February of 1942, her father was arrested by FBI agents and in April the rest of the family was interned--first at the Santa Anita Race Track and then to a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. She did not see her father again until 1948 (1: No Paternal Safety Net). During this time she graduated from high school (where she had been the art editor for the year book), and won a scholarship from the Quakers to Milwaukee State Teachers College to study to be an art teacher. To support herself during this time she worked in a leather tanning factory and as a domestic servant. In 1945, she and her sister traveled to Mexico City to study Spanish and learn more about Mexican art. To get her teaching credentials she was required to practice-teach in a school, but is told that because of the anti-Japanese prejudice there is no position for her and she will not be able to complete her degree (12: Hard Times).

She then decided to finish her education at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she lived for three years. During that time her mentors included Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Franz Kline and Josef Albers (4: Supportive Someone). In 1947, she returned to Mexico and learned techniques for crocheting baskets, which for the next decade she used in her wire sculpture experiments.

At this time, she met her future husband Albert Lanier, and they moved to San Francesco where they married even though both of their families disapproved (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream). Their first home was a loft above an onion warehouse. They had six children, and more than their share of financial difficulties. Late at night and in the early mornings while her children slept, Asawa would draw, paint, experiment with paper, and make crocheted wire sculptures. She chose to work at home to be near her children (16: Intensive Motherhood).

Gradually, her work began to be recognized, and by 1966 she had been commissioned to make the fountain at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco (pictured above). Her popularity grew, and so many commissions followed that she became known as " the fountain lady." Her sculptures are in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Earlier this year one of her pieces sold at  a Christie's auction for $1.4 million (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

Asawa joined several parents to create the Alvarado Arts Workshop by bringing throwaway objects (milk cartons, egg cartons and scrap fabric) and having artists work with the students. And even though her education had been "challenged," she wanted other children to develop as creative thinkers and problem solvers (7: Magnificent Obsession).She organized the Music, Art, Dance, Drama and Science (MADDS) festival, and soon began focusing her energy on building a public high school for the Arts. In 2010, the school was named for her and is now the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (8: Turning No into Yes).

In 1985, she was diagnosed with Lupus, and spent a year on her recovery (12: Hard Times). Although the illness went into remission, she never totally regained her strength and died at age 87. She has received numerous awards and honorary degrees, and is widely admired for her unique abstract sculptures.

Looking forward to your comments...

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