Fine Art Focus: Ruth Asawa

by Grace Bonney

When I was younger, I obsessively devoured biographies of my favorite musicians. Books about Neil Young and Bob Dylan littered my room and, at the end of each book, I found myself wishing that I knew less about them, rather than more. That deeper knowledge of their personal life often left me feeling disillusioned and disenchanted, even if it did shed light on their lyrics. So I swore off musical biographies and threw myself into fine art, absorbing the fascinating, and often heartbreaking, stories of visual artists. I became fascinated with how their most challenging moments shaped their view of the world and the stories they had to tell. One of those stories stuck with me during my college years, and I wanted to share part of it here today.

Artist and sculptor Ruth Asawa was one of the most important artists of her generation and her work continues to inspire and inform an entirely new age of creatives. Her wire sculptures (which were inspired by Mexican egg baskets) are the stuff of legends (we were constantly trying — and failing — to recreate them in my sculpture classes in college), and the way she was able to weave such a sense of softness and light with an industrial material was breathtaking. But that visual lightness was a sharp contrast to her early days. When Ruth was 16, she and her family were detained in a Japanese internment camp in California for 18 months. Those difficult times were something she spoke of rarely, but when she did, she found one small silver lining: it was where she learned to love drawing. Several other internees were animators at Walt Disney Studios, and it was alongside those talented artists that Ruth discovered her passion for drawing and line work.

After her family was released from the internment camp, she went on to study at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in its heyday, alongside Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham and Josef Albers. It was there that Ruth explored her love of wire sculptures and went on to create some of her most iconic work. I never got to see Ruth speak in person, but as an art student I devoured every written interview, book and magazine article about her I could find. Her talent, perseverance and dedication to her work and her craft is endlessly inspiring to me. If you’re just discovering her for the first time or are a longtime fan, I hope you’ll read on to learn more about her and investigate more of her work online and in person at museums across the country. xo, grace

Artist: Ruth Asawa
About: Ruth was born on January 24, 1926 in Norwalk, California.
Work: Ruth is perhaps best known for her woven wire sculptures which were often hung from the ceiling like delicate floating chrysalises.
More: You can read (and listen to) more about Ruth and her work here, here, here and here.

All artwork (c) Ruth Asawa. Images via RuthAsawa.com


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  • Love her work. I think I recall seeing some of her sculpture for the first time at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

    Another artist who made incredible work despite the difficult and enormously unjust circumstances of life in the Japanese internment camps is Chiura Obata. I first saw his beautiful woodblock prints at the Whitney’s inaugural show “America Is Hard to See.”

  • Lovely! Black Mountain College was such an interesting place. I love Merce, Albers, and Rauschenberg. Did you try knitting variations on hat patterns using fine metal wire to recreate these shapes? Knitting with wire actually isn’t as difficult as it sounds.