Although I lived stretches of my life near San Francisco (in Santa Cruz and Berkeley), I only discovered the work of San Francisco based artist Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) in a recent New York Times Magazine article marking her death. Her sculptures grace the city, and I certainly will seek them out next time I make a visit.
Born in 1926, Asawa was sent to the detention camps for Japanese Americans during World War Two. She chose to remember the positive side, like meeting practicing artists who encouraged her to become an artist herself. After the war, she attended the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she met her husband, the architect Albert Lanier. They soon moved to San Francisco and worked as independent artists while raising their six children.
Asawa’s work ethic had a lot to with her family life. She found time to create after her children had gone to bed. As she told photographer and writer Cathleen Rountree in the 1999 book On Women Turning 70, “It’s important to learn how to use your small bits of time, your five minutes, your ten minutes, your fifteen minutes. All those begin to count up, because you could save all your nickels and dimes and before you know it, you have a whole piggy bank full.”(93) She repurposed women’s crafts to make her art. Her famous wire sculptures were crocheted, and she made the model for the exuberant fountain in Union Square out of bread dough.
In addition to earning a living as an artist and raising her children, Asawa was a tireless advocate for art classes in the public schools. All of this left her little time to worry about her wardrobe. Almost all the pictures of have seen of her show her in utilitarian work clothes—a sweatshirt, dark pants or jeans, and sensible shoes. Even at fancy events, she went for the minimal, like a simple dark dress with a scarf or necklace. But then when you can make such much beauty with your hands, perhaps you don’t need beautiful clothes on your back.