Ruth Asawa at work by Imogen Cunningham

Revelling in my new freedom now that my course is finished, I took myself off to Oxford on Tuesday to see the exhibition Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe at Modern Art Oxford.

Before the pandemic I managed to visit another Asawa exhibition in London at the David Zwirner gallery. The Oxford exhibition seemed to have fewer sculptures but more photos of Asawa (by her friend Imogen Cunningham) and samples and drawings from her time at Black Mountain College.

This blog post is largely based on an earlier post I wrote about the earlier exhibition in February 2020.

“An artist is not special. An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special.”

Ruth Asawa

Ruth Asawa is best known for her hanging wire sculptures, a technique she learnt on a trip to Mexico in 1947. Her elevation of this method of making functional baskets into creating elemental transparent forms enclosing other forms makes me think of Haeckel drawings – or maybe I’m still hungover from my coursework!

She did not have an easy beginning. As a Japanese American, at the age of 16 she was interned by the US government along with the rest of her family after the outbreak of the Second World War. Luckily, after 18 months, a Quaker scholarship allowed her to study to be an art teacher in Milaukee.

However, unable to teach due to continued hostility to the Japanese, Asawa travelled to Black Mountain College in North Carolina to study art. Here, among luminaries including Josef and Anni Albers and Buckminster Fuller, she gained the courage to become an artist and to do what she wanted to do. She also met her future husband, architectural student Albert Lanier, with whom she had six children.

Living with Lanier in San Francisco, Asawa managed to carry on working around family life, often at night or in the early morning. It paid off, as she began to get recognition for her sculptures, and was asked to explain them.

My curiosity was aroused by the idea of giving structural form to the images in my drawings. These forms come from observing plants, the spiral shell of a snail, seeing light through insect wings, watching spiders repair their webs in the early morning, and seeing the sun through the droplets of water suspended from the tips of pine needles while watering my garden.

Ruth Asawa

As well as looping, she also experimented with tied wire to create branching forms.

In the late 1960s, Asawa moved into arts activism, cofounding the Alvarado School Arts Workshop to give schoolchildren the chance to work directly with professional artists. She was later instrumental in building a public high school for the arts in San Francisco in 1982.

A child can learn something about colour, 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, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader.

Ruth Asawa

Ruth Asawa died in 2013, five years after her husband.

Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe runs at Modern Art Oxford until 21 August 2022.

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