"When you put a seed in the ground, it doesn't stop growing after eight hours. It keeps going every minute that it's in the earth. We, too, need to keep growing every moment of every day that we are on this earth." -- Ruth Asawa
The world of education has many unsung heroes, and Ruth Asawa is one with a unique life story. For more than five decades, she has created a singular reputation as a modernist sculptor known for her wire sculpture and public commissions. She has also been a fierce advocate for arts education, a well-known San Franciscan who led the movement to create a School of the Arts in the school district.
My wife and I -- she's a Ruth, too -- have had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions, the first time working on a 1980 segment for local television station KGO on the positive relationship between Asawa and her then teenage son, Paul. Many years later, she patiently sat in her living room and taught our own daughter, Maggie, some complex origami folds.
Her legacy in art and educational activism is now being celebrated with the first major retrospective of her career, The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, at the new home of San Francisco's De Young Museum. The accompanying catalogue contains a fascinating account of Asawa's life by the late Jacqueline Hoefer.
The daughter of truck farmers, Asawa was born in 1926 in Norwalk, in southern California, one of seven children. In 1942, her family was ordered to report to the temporary incarceration center for Japanese Americans at the Santa Anita Race Track. Her father had already been taken away by government agents and would be separated from the family for several years. Asawa lived with her siblings and mother in a horse stall for six months before relocating to an internment camp in Arkansas.
The one silver lining for the teenage Asawa was encountering Disney artists, also interned, who conducted art classes in the grandstands and taught her to draw. Her first artist teacher, Tom Okamoto, encouraged the students not to copy but to create original drawings from life.
Later, in Arkansas, she and other interned students dutifully recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day for their social studies teacher. After the final phrase, "with liberty and justice for all," they always added in a loud voice, "Except for us!"
After the war, Asawa went to Milwaukee State Teachers College (now the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee), intent on becoming an art teacher, but no school district in the state would hire her for student teaching to fulfill her credential requirements and allow her to complete her degree. Decades later, when the university approached her to bestow an honorary doctorate, she asked only that it hand her the undergraduate diploma she had been denied.
Asawa went on to study at North Carolina's legendary Black Mountain College under artist Josef Albers and designer Buckminster Fuller and alongside composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. It was the formative art experience of her life. She also began experimenting with crocheted wire sculpture and met her future husband, architect Albert Lanier.
After moving to San Francisco in 1949, the two began a family, fulfilling her professed goal of having six children. However, when her kids entered the local public school, Asawa was dismayed to learn that "art" consisted of coloring in mimeographed pages. "I remember what it feels like to be a victim -- to be victimized," she says. "And I couldn't bear to see the lack of true arts education."
In 1968, Asawa cofounded the Alvarado Arts Program, which began at San Francisco's Alvarado Elementary School and now brings together professional artists, parents, and teachers in many of the city's schools to work with students in clay sculpture, visual arts, music dance, and theater.
The program began by recycling milk and egg cartons and scrap fabric for materials, and it also emphasizes gardening to provide children with a hands-on connection to nature. Asawa has worked tirelessly to convince policy makers to elevate the level of arts teaching in the nation's schools, serving on the San Francisco Art Commission, the California Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts committees, and President Carter's Commission on Mental Health.
Activism in arts education is now a tradition in Asawa's family. Her son, Paul Lanier, is a ceramicist and has been an artist-in-residence for nine years at the Alvarado Arts Program.
"Through the arts, you can learn many, many skills that you cannot learn through books and problem solving in the abstract," Asawa says. "A child can learn something about color, about design, and about observing objects in nature. If you do that, you grow into a greater awareness of things around you. Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into. It makes a person broader."
Many of Asawa's elegant bronze and steel sculptures began as folded paper or simple clay figures. For the Hyatt Hotel's bronze fountain sculpture, in San Francisco's Union Square, she enlisted family and friends in molding city landmarks and scenes from baker's clay, a mixture of flour, salt, and water, a medium she first used with fifth graders at Alvarado. Her large latticed pieces, evoking organic forms and shapes, originated in a wire-basket crocheting technique she learned while visiting Mexico City in the 1940s.
"Art is for everybody," Asawa says. "It is not something that you should have to go to the museums in order to see and enjoy. When I work on big projects, such as a fountain, I like to include people who haven't yet developed their creative side -- people yearning to let their creativity out. I like designing projects that make people feel safe, not afraid to get involved."
Ruth Asawa should be an inspiration for generations of educational activists to come. Confronted with wartime racism, didactic teaching, and the bureaucracy of schools, she was never afraid to get involved.
Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Ruth Cox directs San Francisco State University's ePortfolio Project for Academic Technology.