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Ruth Asawa


"We've done many projects together. There's really no typical work with my mom. Everything is unique."
-- Paul Lanier

View Spark segment on Ruth Asawa. Original air date: May 2005. (Running Time: 9:35)

Editor's note: Ruth Asawa passed away on August 6, 2013.

For more than five decades, sculptor Ruth Asawa has been associated with some of the most notable figures in American 20th-century art. As a young woman, she studied at the legendary Black Mountain College under Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller, alongside John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In addition to producing an impressive body of work, Asawa has been a vocal advocate for arts education.

Asawa's elegant cast bronze and steel sculptures have graced the Bay Area since the 1970s. As public works of art, their weight and permanence belie the importance of process to the artist, who obsessively manipulates materials to find forms translatable into large-scale works. For Asawa, the path that leads to the production of a finished piece is as important as the work itself. Many of Asawa's large cast sculptures and fountains began as folded paper, and her large latticed pieces had their beginnings when she learned a local crocheting technique while visiting Mexico City in the 1940s.

Spark visited Asawa as she and her family assembled an expansive retrospective for the reopening of Golden Gate Park's de Young Museum in October 2005. In preparation for this exhibition, Asawa's daughter, Aiko Cuneo, had been busily collecting her mother's work as well as selecting a variety of drawings and preparatory works. It is a labor of love for Cuneo, whose memories of childhood are interwoven with her mother's constant art-making.

As a strong supporter of public arts education, Asawa helped in the founding of San Francisco's School of the Arts and spearheaded the Alvarado Arts Program, which brings working artists into San Francisco's public schools. Asawa has fought hard to enhance the level of arts teaching and curriculum in San Francisco's public schools. Activism in favor of arts education has become a tradition in Asawa's family, as her son, ceramicist Paul Lanier, is an artist-in-residence at Alvarado Elementary, where the Alvarado Arts Program originated. Lanier attended the school as a child.

Ruth Asawa earned a B.A. from Black Mountain College in 1949. Her work has been exhibited internationally and can be found in major collections, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. She has received numerous awards, including the Fine Arts Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects and the Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts from the Women's Caucus for Art. In 1982, February 12 was declared Ruth Asawa Day in San Francisco.

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