Ruth Asawa’s art celebrates diversity of style and technique. Drawing from illustration, painting, dance, basket weaving, music and pottery, her multi-disciplined approach to art was nurtured as a student at Black Mountain College in the late 40’s. Her introduction to art however, came to Asawa under less than auspicious circumstances. During WW II Asawa’s entire family was interned in Santa Anita, CA and later Rohwer, Arkansas. As a teen living in the internment Assembly Center in Santa Anita, Asawa was forced to live in a horse stall. During this time before being sent to Arkansas, she learned to draw and was taught by fellow internees who were animators for Walt Disney Studios. After leaving Rohwer after 18 months, Asawa continued her education which eventually led her to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The experimental, interdisciplinary curriculum of the school allowed Asawa to explore various artistic mediums among students who would become legends in their own right.
It is in this context that I was recently introduced to her art, however little did I know her work had made a profound impression on me decades earlier.
Asawa’s sculptures are intricately woven pieces fabricated from a single thread of wire used to create infinite loops. The delicate spheres are forms within forms that obscure the points where one orb ends and another begins. The beauty of their transparency is unveiled in the intricate shadows cast by the forms.
Today I went to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles for “Leap Before You Look”, the multi-institutional exhibit curated by Helen Molesworth. The Hammer’s presentation of the show was organized by Anne Ellegood who gave an interesting talk about Asawa’s story this afternoon. Asawa’s participation in Black Mountain was that it was fairly unknown, in fact Molesworth’s inspiration for the exhibit was borne out of a curiosity about Ruth Asawa and a quest to learn more about her work at the school. Asawa is clearly gaining recognition by institutions and galleries, but until recently she was fairly underrepresented outside of the San Francisco Bay Area. In San Francisco however, her legacy is far reaching.
As an advocate for arts education, Ruth Asawa founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop in San Francisco in 1968. She later leveraged her civic participation in the San Francisco Arts Council to champion the arts and art education in the city. Her advocacy was not only effective, it was far reaching; the Alvarado School Arts Workshop was replicated in over 50 public schools in San Francisco. Asawa also executed a number of public art installations in the bay area.
“Art is for everybody,” according to Asawa. “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. I like designing projects that make people feel safe, not afraid to get involved.”
When I was a child growing up the the Bay Area one of my fond memories was when my extended family would gather for brunch in San Francisco for Mother’s Day. I distinctly remember a large bas relief fountain wedged into the expansive brick laid staircase leading to the Grand Hyatt in Union Square. The longer you looked at it the more you saw, it is a fascinating piece of civic sculpture that captures your imagination-I loved it. Today I learned that Ruth Asawa was the artist behind the work.
The large scale 7 foot high fountain is comprised of bronze casts forms of San Francisco landmarks. The fountain’s design was created by Asawa, while the original baker’s clay molds used to cast the bronze fountain were fabricated by a group of volunteers including children. The piece is a testament to community collaboration and beautifully reflects the spirit of San Francisco in the 1970’s. Asawa created numerous fountains that decorate San Francisco and surrounding areas. Because of this, she was affectionately known as the “Fountain Lady”.
Ruth Asawa’s work is stunning and her story was compelling. The diversity of her creative range enabled her effectiveness as an engaged, inspiring community leader who selflessly shared her talent. She has left a legacy that has inspired many to embrace creativity in all forms.
I was incredibly moved to experience her work today.
“Leap Before You Look” is on view at the Hammer Museum through May 15, 2016.