A Woman to Know: Ruth Asawa

I would not be who I am today had it not been for the internment, and I like who I am. — Ruth Asawa

I would not be who I am today had it not been for the internment, and I like who I am. — Ruth Asawa

(image via The National Portrait Gallery)

Ruth grew up as the eldest daughter on an 80-acre farm in California, helping her parents harvest seasonal produce to sell at the Los Angeles farmers’ market. She worked her early teen years as both a farmhand and a student. She began taking her love of the natural world to her arts classes and tried to balance her home duties with her artistic ambitions.

But the beginning of World War II forever changed Ruth’s provincial life. In December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the US declared war and entered the global conflict. In January 1942, Ruth celebrated her 16th birthday — just one month later, in February 1942, the United States government began interning Japanese-Americans in camps along the West Coast. FBI agents imprisoned Ruths father in Mexico and sent the rest of her family to live in a crowded, dusty horse stables at Santa Anitas, a nearby detention camp.

Ruth later said her time in internment forever changed her artistic life for the better. The close camp quarters introduced her to three Japanese-American Walt Disney artists who’d worked on classics like “Snow White” and “Pinnochio.” Without the farm chores, Ruth found herself finally able to make substantial progress on art. The three Disney artists set up makeshift art classes with Ruth, teaching her drawing, animation and more. “Sometimes good comes through adversity,” she later said.

After five months at Santa Anitas, the family moved to an internment camp in Arkansas. Ruth and her siblings returned to farming as a way to make extra money — and to escape the cruel conditions of their new home. But again, Ruth found inspiration in her natural surroundings. “The Louisiana swamps were just as I imagined them to be,” she later said. “Enchanting, beautiful and weird.” She began experimenting with curved shapes and basket techniques that would later become hallmarks of her style.

When she graduated from high school in 1943, Ruth’s teachers pushed her to consider art school. Ruth moved to Milwaukee and finally escaped the internment camps. joined the Black Mountain College, a legendary school known as a “paradise” for unconventional artists.

In 1948, when her family was finally freed from detention, Ruth visited Los Angeles, helping her parents to reestablish their former lives as local farmers. She and her husband traveled on to Mexico, where Ruth began developing her wire-weaving sculptures, the works that would ultimately make her famous.

In 1963, living in San Francisco as a working artist, Ruth threw herself into the world of community activism. She advocated for public art projects and funding for creatives. In 1968, she unveiled her first public piece, “Andrea’s Fountain,” in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square. As she later told an interviewer:

I don’t think that art by itself is important. I think that the reason the arts are important is because it is the only thing that an individual can do and maintain his individuality. I think that is very important — making your own decisions. If you count everything that we fight for — better schools, better health care, more social awareness — we are letting other people make the decisions for us. We are not taking our lives into our own hands and making those decisions for ourselves.

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