Sunday, August 18, 2013

In Memory of Ruth Asawa (1926-2013)

Come Celebrate Ruth Asawa Day, San Francisco Examiner Feb. 11, 1982

Both as an artist and as an activist, Ruth Asawa played a powerful and lasting role in San Francisco's cultural life.  Her artwork is a familiar part of the our city's landscape and expresses a very San Franciscan sensibility.  Both through creative work and advocacy she contributed to how we as a City think about art within our community.

While she worked in several media, she became known as the "fountain lady" because of the beloved public fountains she created in our City - the Fox Plaza Fountain (removed in 2008), Andrea at Ghirardelli Square, the San Francisco Fountain at the Union Square Hyatt, Aurora at the Embarcadero, and the Origami Fountains in Japantown.

A detail of the mermaid of the Andrea Fountain on the San Francisco Fountain

Learning about the creative process during her education at the Black Mountain College she came to view that artistic work is a form of self-cultivation.  Her teacher, Josef Albers stressed that the "lessons of art were also the lessons of life" and encouraged artist to work on solving practical problems.  She carried that ideal with her through life. A prime example being that when as an established artist she created her mermaid sculpturem (Andrea) for Ghiradelli Square she had never done representational sculpture or cast in bronze before.

This ideal also showed through artistic engagement with her community.  Many of her public art works involved members of the community, artists and non-artists alike, in their creation.  Her San Francisco Fountain is a prime example of this -- the fountain took more than two years to finish and involved 250 people including children from the public schools who she had worked with. 

She held a strong "belief in having professional artists work with students" so that they could learn by learn by doing
You don't have to be an artist to do artistic work.  I believe it is the artist's duty to make it possible for many people to participate and to become involved in community art projects.
From being an active volunteer in her childrens' school she continued as an advocate for the arts in the school and became the driving force behind the creation of the School of the Arts (SOTA) today rightfully named the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts.

A Powell Mason cable car on its way to SOTA / McAteer (detail from San Francisco Yesterday and Today)

As the president of the School for the Arts Foundation she worried about the growing emphasis of technology over creativity:
When I see children sitting down in those cubicles staring at computer screen terminals, I sense we are teaching these youngsters to be farther and farther away from people ... I think the greatest computer around is the human computer whereby one learns how to solve problems, create ideas and develop independent critical thinking skills.  Art exercises more mental skills than any other activity I can think of.
 Andrea Jepsen, her friend and the model for the mermaid in her, in an appreciation of the artist wrote of her incredible ability to cut through red tape.

Today the School of the Arts continues to thrive and San Francisco Public Schools continue to engage their students with art and artists.

Above is a detail from San Francisco Yesterday and Today of her husband, architect Albert Lanier, whistling as he approaches a BART train, carrying a School of the Arts Foundation (SOTAF) briefcase in his left hand.  Note the detail work of the faces looking out from the train.

On a Library related note - both Asawa and Albert Lanier, played a major role in getting the Gottardo Piazzoni murals moved to and displayed in the new DeYoung museum after they were displaced from the old Main Library by the Asian Art Museum.

A humorous entry from the Ruth Asawa file in the Art, Music and Recreation Center's Newspaper Clipping Files:

from the San Francisco Chronicle Feb. 26, 1973

"However, if he ever takes a magnifying glass to Ruth Asawa's fascinating fountain at the Union Square Hyatt, he may not be amused to find a lot of anti-war slogans, including one reading 'Pull Out Dick.'"

Detail from San Francisco Fountain - "Give Peace a Chance"


(all newspaper entries are found in the Ruth Asawa Newspaper Clipping Files) 

Ruth Asawa, Art, Competence, and Citywide Cooperation: An Interview Conducted by Harriet Nathan in 1974 and 1976 (Regional Oral History Office, University of California, The Bancroft Library, 1980).

Dan Borsuk, "Sculptor sees too much computer education, not enough arts," San Francisco Progress (October 10, 1984), A3.

Daniell Cornell, The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours In The Air (University of California Press, 2006).

Stephen Dobbs, "Community and Commitment: An Interview with Ruth Asawa," Art Education 34/5 (September, 1981), 14-17 [available through the JStor database]

Mildred Hamilton, "Posterity's Little Hands," San Francisco Examiner (September 19, 1972), 21.

Alison Isenberg, "'Culture-a-go-go': The Ghirardelli Square Controversy and the Liberation of Civic Design in the 1960s," Journal of Social History 44/2 (Winter 2010), 379-412. [available through the Academic OneFile database].

Bernard S. Katz, The Fountains of San Francisco (Don't Call It Frisco Press, 1989).

Andrea Jepsen, "In Praise of Ruth Asawa," California Living Magazine May 11, 1975.

Warren and Georgia Radford, Outdoor Sculpture in San Francisco (Helsham Press, 2002).

Merla Zellerbach, "The Asawa Legacy," Nob Hill Gazette April 1993, 6

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