Ruth Asawa closely inspects one of her looped wire sculptures.
Ruth Asawa closely inspects one of her looped wire sculptures. One can only imagine the brilliant details her artistic mind could see beyond the obvious. Photo courtesy of Imogen Cunningham/the Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Ruth Asawa helped full time on her family’s farm until World War II hit. Americans feared internal attacks from the Japanese and placed 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps. The Asawas were one such family. Though the situation was difficult, it gave Ruth an unexpected respite from farm work, and she took up drawing.

Art Study

Asawa had been in internment camps for 18 months when she graduated from high school and received a scholarship to attend college. She left for school and did not see her parents again for several years. “I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one,” she said in 1994. “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.”

Hanging Ruth Asawa metal sculpture casting a shadow on the wall.
The looped wire sculptures of Ruth Asawa reflect onto the surfaces behind them, making two artworks in one. Photograph by Paul Hassel. © Ruth Asawa; June Lane Christensen with daughter, Katherine, 1956, Santa Barbara.

After three years at college in Wisconsin and three more at an art school in North Carolina, where she studied under creatives like Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller, she moved to San Francisco, married architect Albert Lanier and had six children.

It was during the 1950s and 60s that she developed her medium: wire sculptures with abstract forms. “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,” she said. She also designed public works, such as the famous mermaid fountain in Ghirardelli Square.

Ruth Asawa's intricate metal sculpture within a sculpture.
Later in life, Ruth Asawa realized her looped-wire forms were inspired as a child. Riding on the back of a horse-drawn leveler, she would swirl her toes in the dirt as the horses walked, creating similar shapes to the ones later seen in her sculptures. Photograph by Paul Hassel. © Ruth Asawa; June Lane Christensen with daughter, Katherine, 1956, Santa Barbara.

Art Activism

As her work gained recognition, she also became active in promoting the arts. In 1968, she co-founded Alvarado School Arts Workshop, which worked with public schools to bring parents and professional artists to develop student creativity. At its height, it encompassed 50 different schools in the San Francisco area. Asawa also served on the  California Arts Council and was a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

“Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation,” she said. “It makes a person broader.”

Close-up of wire sculptures within a wire sculpture.
Ruth Asawa’s looped wire sculptures are made of thousands of wire loops, all done by hand. Such detail reflects Ruth’s unbreakable spirit and resilience which carried on from her childhood. Photograph by Paul Hassel. © Ruth Asawa; June Lane Christensen with daughter, Katherine, 1956, Santa Barbara.

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