STANFORD, Calif. — The 233 masks that originally hung on the exterior of Ruth Asawa’s family home in San Francisco’s Noe Valley are publicly displayed in their entirety for the first time in the ongoing exhibition The Faces of Ruth Asawa at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. Installed on the reverse side of the wall upon which the Stanford Family Collection death masks are exhibited as part of Mark Dion’s The Melancholy Museum, Asawa’s life masks disentangle the impulse to collect from a culture of mourning — they do not keep count of past or future losses. 

Asawa was inspired by a 1966 Life magazine article on Roman busts, and became determined to create imagines, Latin for wax images, of her friends, neighbors, students, and family. She fit cardboard cut-outs over her sitters’ vaselined faces and then applied plaster. Once it was set, she would lift the plaster mold and fill it with clay to create a mask that holds the trace of a moment — a stencil of the real. The instant moments that she captured were what she liked about casting faces. Asawa’s preference for immediacy is echoed in her frustrations about cultural institutions’ fetishization of Japanese internment. She told Paul Karlstrom in an interview, “I didn’t want to be a victim […] Our life as immigrants was much harder than the internment … Just surviving was much more intense.”

The Faces of Ruth Asawa at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, 2022 (photo by Glen Cheriton, courtesy the Cantor Arts Center)

Asawa did not want to cast faces of the dead but instead “people who go on after this.” She froze the moment, not in anticipation of grief — like photography’s enfolding of “that is” into the tragedy of “that has been” — but to linger with the intensity of the present, the miracle of having come thus far, and the promises of becoming. The grooves of faces are the riverbeds for growth. Asawa was enraptured by the uniqueness of each face: the waxing and waning of cheeks, the topography of pores and smile lines, a faint vein on the forehead, or the occasional pursed lips. 

Ruth Asawa in front of the entrance to her home, n.d. (courtesy Stanford University Special Collections)

The masks are one of many repeating motifs in Asawa’s house, akin to the cobblestones that her children gathered to pave the walkway, the loops of wire in her sculptures, and the waves that meander and tessellate on the door. Asawa vowed to create a thousand, or even ten thousand life masks. She collected the features of all those who she had the fortune of knowing — from her mentor at Black Mountain College, Gwendolyn Knight, to her student Willie at McAteer High School to her long-time friend and collaborator Mae Lee, who lived next door to Asawa, brought her food, and practiced tai chi with her for the last 30 years of Asawa’s life.

The life masks seem to mirror the words of Luce Irigaray as currencies of “exchanges without identifiable terms, without accounts, without end … without additions and accumulations, one plus one, woman after woman.” The faces that multiply and undulate are afterlives and aspirations of giving without reserve, enjoyment without a fee, perception without judgment, and survival without pain. 

Ruth Asawa, “Mae Lee, Tai Chi” (1974) (courtesy Stanford University Special Collections)

The Faces of Ruth Asawa continues indefinitely at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University (328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford, California). The exhibition was curated by Dr. Aleesa Alexander as part of the Asian American Art Initiative.

Ekalan Hou is a writer based in California and studies art history, English, and comparative studies of race and ethnicity at Stanford University.