Japanese American artist, Ruth Asawa, was a California sculptor best known for her elaborate woven pieces. Her filigree sculptures were made from brass, enameled copper, iron, and wire.
Asawa grew up on a farm in California, and she was always good at stringing up string beans. When she and her family were removed from their home – along with 110,000 other Japanese Americans in 1942 – her family lost all their farm equipment and their horses. Interned at the Santa Anita Racetrack, they lived in a horse stall. Three animators from Walt Disney Studios were sent to teach art to the interned children. She studied with one of them, Tom Okamoto, and he taught her how to draw.
Later on her family was sent to Rohwer in Arkansas where she studied under an art teacher, who had her students draw landscapes outside the internment camp. Asawa illustrated the camp yearbook, drawing caricatures of each student. She always said that art saved us during the internment. There are only two surviving watercolors made by her from her time in the camp. In a 2002 interview, she said that she wasn’t interested in making art that confronted the experience. “Just surviving was much more intense,” she said when speaking about her regular life as an immigrant in the United States.
While she wanted to be an artist, it was more practical for her to study to be a teacher. So she attended college but was not able to practice teach because of racism. Therefore she had no degree and was unable to work as a teacher. She laughs when she talk about having to attend Black Mountain College, which had the most progressive art teachers in the world. Now she was able to do exactly what she had always wanted to do: study and make art.
For three years she studied painting with Josef Albers, who changed his curriculum every year. In the summer of 1947 she and her sister participated in a Quaker sponsored educational exchange in Toluca, Mexico. Here she started exploring wire as an artistic medium when she noticed the looped wire baskets, woven by Mexican women to carry eggs and produce.
She took the technique back to Black Mountain and made it her own, first through small wire baskets and then in 1949 through suspended sculptures and hanging mobiles. She did this by closing up her baskets and making them into sculptures and suspended objects. She also enclosed smaller baskets into her large pieces. She said that it was like drawing in space, drawing in three dimensions, and this linked back to her training with Albers.
In 1968, she created her first representational work for a fountain in Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, which had two mermaids, splashing water, and a recording of croaking frogs. She designed other public fountains and became known as the “fountain lady.”
In 1994, she created a Japanese American Internment Memorial in San Jose, California. This sculptured work consisted of two narrative planes. On one side was her family life before the war. On the second side were scenes from internment. Asawa wanted this work to be not just a memorial to Japanese Americans who were interned but for all people who have been wrongly treated. “It can happen to anybody. This can happen to you too.”
Asawa’s wire sculptures have been shown in countless museums and are in the collections of the Guggenheim, LACMA, and Whitney Museum in New York.