Japanese-American sculptor Ruth Asawa (January 24, 1926—August 5, 2013), San Francisco’s beloved “fountain lady” nicknamed after her extraordinary public fountains, is as celebrated for her mesmerizing wire sculptures as she is for her relentless advocacy of the arts. Having experienced the worst of the human spirit first-hand during WWII, as a teenager banished to an incarceration center for Japanese Americans, she rose to behold its best.

Asawa, one of seven children born to Japanese truck farmers in Southern California, overcame devastating adversity to attend the legendary Black Mountain College under the mentorship of Buckminster Fuller and Josef Albers, alongside such creative luminaries as avant-garde composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and artist Jasper Johns. In 1968, she co-founded San Francisco’s Alvarado Arts Program, which pairs public school students with professional artists, parents, and teachers to explore the joys of sculpture, dance, theater, and the visual arts, and went on to serve on the California Arts Council, President Carter’s Commission on Mental Health, and the National Endowment for the Arts committee.

In an oral history interview conducted by Paul Karlstrom in 2002 and included in The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, Asawa recounts an anecdote in which Fuller came upon a young Japanese man protesting at an airport and told him not to waste his time protesting but to redirect his energies toward something constructive instead, echoing Bertrand Russell’s timeless wisdom on construction vs. destruction. Asawa remarks of Fuller’s philosophy, with which she wholly identifies:

Rather than protesting for nothing, for going out in the street with banners … a young person with an idea should be working on that idea instead of fighting what he doesn’t believe in. And I think that kind of … activism is wasteful. And it’s better to be working on an idea. And building on that than to breaking down and protesting something that exists.

Instead, Asawa’s own brand of activism consisted of relentlessly democratizing art, a mission she articulates with beautiful simplicity:

Art is for everybody. It is not something that you should have to go to the museums in order to see and enjoy. When I work on big projects, such as a fountain, I like to include people who haven’t yet developed their creative side — people yearning to let their creativity out. I like designing projects that make people feel safe, not afraid to get involved.

Though Asawa remains best-known for her magnificent wire sculptures, her genius lies not in identifying with a particular material but in pushing a material beyond the boundaries of imagination, bending it into breathless whimsy. The essence of her spirit springs to life in her closing remarks from the Karlstrom interview:

Whether it’s a craft or whether it’s art. That is a definition that people put on things. And what I like is the material is irrelevant. It’s just that that happens to be material that I use. And I think that is important. That you take an ordinary material like wire and you make it, you give it a new definition. That’s all.

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    (previously, one of her wire sculptures)
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    Though Asawa remains best-known for her magnificent wire sculptures, her genius lies not in identifying with a...
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