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Ruth Asawa’s Life and Legacy, in Both Art and Education

Marilyn Chase’s new biography sheds light on Asawa’s contributions to San Francisco’s public schools and its artistic community at large.

Imogen Cunningham, “Ruth [Asawa], kneeling amid tied-wire sculptures in her dining room” (1963) (all images courtesy Chronicle Books, © The Imogen Cunningham Trust, unless otherwise stated)
Delicate while monumental, diaphanous yet sharp, Ruth Asawa’s wire sculptures ask that viewers experience them as more than what they first encounter. On a cursory glance, they encourage us to negotiate their sinuous shapes, which might seem to billow with any shift in the breeze. But these solid structures stand their ground in other ways, coaxing viewers to look towards the shadows they cast on the walls and consider their subtle second iterations.

Asawa, in many ways, mirrors the complexity of her works. To categorize her as just a visual artist, or just a concentration camp survivor, or even as just a Black Mountain College protegeé would obscure the complexity of her life and legacy, particularly her unending dedication to arts education.

The cover of Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa, by Marilyn Chase (Chronicle Books, 2020) (image by Eva Recinos for Hyperallergic)

These essential parts of Asawa’s personal history come to light in Marilyn Chase’s new text, Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa. Many artist biographies let us into the idiosyncrasies of their subjects — their work routines, romantic relationships, etc. — but Chase’s biography also does the important work of shedding light on Asawa’s contributions to San Francisco’s public schools and its artistic community at large.

While raising six children, hosting friends and artists at her home, and spending countless hours making her own art, Asawa also dedicated her career to attending school board meetings and improving children’s experiences of the arts through a grassroots approach.

“Where other people might have spent more time in the studio or [might have] given time and thought and energy and resources toward burnishing their image… she was all about just giving it away,” Chase explained in a phone interview with Hyperallergic. Throughout her text, Chase pulls out important milestones of Asawa’s life, from her experience on the farm with her family to her artistic practice, without romanticizing the difficult times in the artist’s past.

Imogen Cunningham, “Ruth, forming a looped-wire sculpture” (1957)

After settling in San Francisco with her husband, architect Albert Lanier, an ubiquitous coloring page sparked Asawa’s mission. When her kids brought home an outline of a Thanksgiving turkey, Asawa realized that the public education system needed better resources in the arts — and that they should endeavor to offer richer art experiences to kids of all ages. She created the Alvarado Arts Workshop, named after the local Alvarado Elementary School in Noe Valley, which organized volunteers and artists to teach workshops. They often struggled to secure funding but Asawa had the ability to [craft] “beauty from cast-off materials,” from a young age, as Chase writes in the first chapter of the book. Her resourcefulness provided the workshop with overlooked but valuable materials like “mounds of yarn scraps and egg cartons donated from the community,” as Chase describes. This attitude eventually led Asawa to co-found SCRAP with Anne Marie Theilen. The non-profit organization, which still exists today, offers free or low-cost art supplies to teachers or educational organizations.

Asawa also had a seat on the de Young Museum’s board of trustees and served on the San Francisco Arts Commission, through which she helmed the San Francisco Arts Education Project. “Many artists will have foundations that make good works,” Chase described over the phone, “but she really divided her energy. She, of course, always had this kind of superhuman energy, [this] nonstop work ethic.”

Imogen Cunningham, “Ruth, arms akimbo, stands before a form-within-a-form sculpture” (1951)

In exhibitions or reviews of Asawa’s work, you might not immediately learn about all of these efforts. Even the New York Times’s obituary of the artist only briefly mentions her commitment to arts education. Chase, meanwhile, firmly ties Asawa’s advocacy efforts to the timeline of her career, demonstrating how the two were inextricable.

Although not all her public works survive, the commissions Asawa took on also cemented her dedication to encouraging the next generation of artists. She took on a number of them while maintaining her studio practice. For her Santa Rosa Courthouse Square fountain, Chase explained to Hyperallergic by phone how Asawa took school children to Steinhart Aquarium to help them choose figures to sculpt. She also opened the doors of her own studio, showing them “what the life of a working artist could look like.”

“Somebody asked me recently who she mentored, if there were young artists that she mentored,” Chase noted, again by phone. “What I would say is that she mentored thousands of school children.”

Imogen Cunningham, “At work in her home studio, Ruth is surrounded by her children” (1957)

Her most ambitious project took up many years of her life: opening an arts school. Founded in 1968, it would later become what is now the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. Chase ends her biography by emphasizing the significance of this work to Asawa. As she writes, when Asawa’sdaughter Aiko asks her mother what she considers “her life’s most important work,” Asawa’s answer is simple — “the schools.”

Editor’s note (5/4/2020, 1:45pm EST): A previous version of this article misidentified Asawa’s husband. He was Albert Lanier, not Lawrence Halprin. We regret the error.  

Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa by Marilyn Chase (Chronicle Books, 2020) is now available on Bookshop.

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