I am no bird, N°2

Ruth Asawa

The woman protagonist of the second article of our format “I am no bird” is Ruth Asawa, the artist, the sculptor, best known for her looped-wire sculptures, which challenge conventional notions of material and form. This new format aims to refresh our memories on stories of women that have had an enormous effect on our lives, with their geniuses, with their arts, with their actions; and Ruth Asawa is the emblem of them all.

An influential sculptor, devoted activist, and tireless advocate for arts education, Ruth Asawa is best known for her extensive body of hanging wire sculptures. Intricate, dynamic, and sinuous, these remarkable works, begun in the late 1940s, continue to challenge conventional notions of sculpture through their emphasis on lightness and transparency. Explaining her fascination with the wire as a material, Asawa said,

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

Born in rural California to Japanese immigrants barred from land ownership and American citizenship, Ruth Aiko Asawa and her family were detained in internment camps during the Second World War. She graduated from the camp’s high school, and it was during her internment that she discovered professional artists, learning to draw from them, who were likewise interned.

“I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one. 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.”

Once released from the camp, she was rejected from different colleges because of their hostility against Japanese Americans, she will move from Wisconsin to North Carolina to be accepted in a college, which was, at the time, renowned for its progressive pedagogical methods and avant-garde aesthetic milieu. Her teachers include the painter Josef Albers, dancer Merce Cunningham, and architect/inventor Buckminster Fuller. She is profoundly influenced by the community of artists and educators at the experimental, liberal arts college. During her studies, she began to explore wire as a medium, inspired by a trip to Mexico during which local craftsmen taught her how to loop baskets out of this material.

“My curiosity was aroused by the idea of giving structural form to the images in my drawings. These forms come from observing plants, the spiral shell of a snail, seeing light through insect wings, watching spiders repair their webs in the early morning, and seeing the sun through the droplets of water suspended from the tips of pine needles while watering my garden.”

Upon moving back to California, Ruth begins friendships with two local photographers who provide tremendous affection and moral support — Imogen Cunningham and Paul Hassel. Along with Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, the weaver Trude Guermonprez, and the ceramic artist Marguerite Wildenhain (all of them met in College) these older artists encourage Ruth to pursue her work. Cunningham advises her to use her maiden name, Asawa. A firm believer in the radical potential of arts education, Asawa devoted herself to expanding access to art-focused educational programs. She co-founded the Alvarado Arts Workshop in 1968 and was instrumental in the opening of the first public arts high school in San Francisco in 1982, which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor in 2010.

“A child can learn something about color, about design, and about observing objects in nature. If you do that, you grow into a greater awareness of things around you. Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader.”