Born in California to Japanese immigrants, Ruth Asawa battled entrenched discrimination throughout her life to become this country’s first Asian American woman sculptor of note and a force for arts education. She invented ingenious wire pieces and created so many outdoor works in San Francisco that she became known as the “fountain lady.” Today, her work—praised for its “gossamer lightness”—is represented in prestigious national museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Guggenheim Museum among others.
While her parents labored as truck farmers in Norwalk, California, young Ruth attended local schools and drew from an early age; she also went weekly to a Japanese cultural school where she studied language and calligraphy. In 1942, her family was among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans interred along the Pacific coast. They were initially incarcerated at the Santa Anita racetrack stables—where artists from Walt Disney led classes in drawing—before being relocated to a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas.
Underwritten by a scholarship from the Quakers, Asawa studied art at Milwaukee State Teachers College. Professional certification required that she perform student teaching, but Asawa was denied the necessary placements based on her Japanese heritage. Instead, she enrolled at Black Mountain College, studying there from 1946 to 1949. She became a devoted student of Josef Albers, who stressed the importance of materials, and benefited from the inventive structural methods of architect Buckminster Fuller and the improvisational approach of dancer Merce Cunningham.
In 1945 and again in 1947, Asawa traveled to Mexico where she learned how to crochet baskets, a technique she later applied to her wire sculptures, which often hang from the ceiling. Living in San Francisco with her husband and six children, Asawa struggled to make ends meet. Working on her woven and tied wire pieces at night, she gradually attained some recognition in solo and group exhibitions. Despite some early successes, her work was frequently labeled “woman’s work” or “craft” because it resembled basket weaving.
When she realized how little art was being taught in local schools, Asawa helped to establish the Alvarado Arts Workshop, an organization that eventually arranged for professional artists to instruct students in fifty area schools. In 1982, she devised the School of the Arts high school near the city’s cultural center. The school was renamed Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010. That same year, Asawa was given a Bachelor of Fine Arts by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, more than fifty years after being denied her teaching certificate. In reflecting on the injustices that marked her journey, Asawa revealed no bitterness: "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."