Japanese American artist Ruth Asawa was interned during World War II, first at the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, where she lived in a horse stall that reeked of manure, and then at a relocation center in Arkansas, where 8,000 detainees were surrounded by barbed wire fences and watch towers.
It was a defining experience, but not a devastating one. Decades later, when Asawa had achieved fame in the art world and admiration in San Francisco as an educator and arts advocate, she told an interviewer that she felt no hostility about the painful period in her youth and blamed no one for her hardship.
“I would not be who I am today had it not been for the internment,” she said, “and I like who I am.”
Asawa, 87, died in her sleep of natural causes Tuesday at her San Francisco home, said her daughter, Addie Lanier. She had been in poor health for several years.
San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee praised Asawa as “a true champion of the arts for our entire city” and an unusually versatile artist. “From intricate wire sculptures to her remarkable public art pieces and memorable paintings and drawings, Ruth’s legacy will continue to inspire generations to come,” he said in a statement.
Timothy Anglin Burgard, curator of American art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, characterized Asawa as “a major postwar American modernist.” Her signature works — crocheted wire mesh sculptures designed to hang from ceilings — “transcend the barriers she faced as an Asian American woman working with craft techniques,” he said. “She lived to see all those categories challenged and redefined.”
Daniell Cornell, who organized a survey of Asawa’s sculpture that appeared at the De Young Museum in San Francisco in 2006 and at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles the following year, views her work as part of the movement from modernism to contemporary art. “She was committed to using art as a tool to make people see and think,” he said.
Or perhaps to transport them to a different environment. In Burgard’s view, her permanent installation of 15 suspended sculptures at the De Young Museum resembles a giant kelp forest where transparent forms move with air currents and cast flickering shadows.
Asawa had a large presence in the Bay Area as a longtime member of the San Francisco Arts Commission and founder of the Alvarado School Arts Workshop, launched in 1968, and the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, a public high school open since 1982.
She was also known as San Francisco’s “fountain lady,” who designed “Andrea,” a mermaid fountain, for Ghirardelli Square and “Aurora,” an origami-inspired abstract work, for the San Francisco waterfront.
But her most prominently located — and fiercely guarded — work is “Hyatt on Union Square Fountain,” a huge cylindrical bronze depiction of San Francisco and its people. Produced in 1973 with the help of 250 friends and schoolchildren, the landmark was at the center of a storm last year when plans for a new Apple store threatened to demolish it. A public protest sent architects back to the drawing board.
Part of what distinguished Asawa from her peers, many associates said, was the multifaceted nature of her career and her ability to blend art and life, including raising a large family. For a child of poverty who worked until her health began to fail, it was all of a piece.
“An artist is not special,” Asawa told an interviewer in 2006. “An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special. An artist looks at a juice bottle, an egg carton or a newspaper and sees something valuable in them.”
Born Jan. 24, 1926, to Japanese immigrants in Norwalk, Asawa was the fourth of seven children. Her parents, Umakichi and Haru Asawa, scratched out a living as truck farmers. It was a hard life, but Ruth said the farm was her earliest inspiration to be an artist.
“I can see glimpses of my childhood in my work,” she said in later years. “We used to make patterns in the dirt, hanging our feet off the horse-drawn farm equipment. We made endless hourglass figures that I now see as the forms within forms in my crocheted wire sculptures.”
Asawa was 16 when she and her family were incarcerated. But she considered herself lucky because she completed high school at the camp in Arkansas and enrolled at Milwaukee State Teachers College, thanks to a Quaker organization. She planned to teach art, but her Japanese ancestry prevented her from completing her credential.
Undaunted, in 1946 Asawa headed off to Black Mountain College, a North Carolina school with visionary teachers. It was a turning point that shaped the rest of her life. She flourished within the school’s experimental educational program and met her future husband, architect and designer Albert Lanier. They settled in San Francisco in 1949.
Asawa’s career took off in the 1950s, when she had exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A group of wire sculptures that won praise at the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1955 recently appeared in “Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965,” an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2011-12.
Asawa’s focus on arts advocacy put her own work in the shadows, but it returned to the limelight this spring when Christie’s auction house in New York presented an exhibition of her work and sold a group of hanging sculptures for more than $1.4 million.
Her husband died in 2008. She is survived by five of her six children, Xavier, Aiko, Hudson, Addie and Paul; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Times staff writer Lee Romney contributed to this report.