SAN FRANCISCO — Often called the “fountain lady” because of her many fountains on public view and considered the matriarch of San Francisco arts education, nationally recognized artist Ruth Asawa was honored with the inaugural Mayor’s Art Award on Oct. 1 at the War Memorial Veterans Building.
Mayor Gavin Newsom presented Asawa with her award in front of 200 guests. The reception was hosted by the San Francisco Arts Commission, to which Asawa was appointed for a four-year term by Mayor Joseph Alioto in 1968.
The Mayor’s Art Award honors lifetime outstanding achievement in the arts and civic life, celebrating the highest artistic standards, commitment to San Francisco’s cultural life and public service to the arts. “Ruth Asawa’s work exemplifies the Arts Commission’s commitment to public art neighborhood arts programs, art in schools and after-school, individual artistic achievements — all these things together give San Francisco its unique character as a city,” said Commission President P.J. Johnston.
Her most famous public sculptures include the “Andrea,” the mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square (1966); the “Hyatt on Union Square Fountain” (1973); the “Buchanan Mall (Nihonmachi) Fountains” (1976); the origami-inspired “Aurora” on the San Francisco waterfront (1986); and the “Japanese American Internment Memorial Sculpture” in San Jose (1994).
Born on Jan. 24, 1926 in Norwalk, a Southern California farming community, Ruth Aiko Asawa was the fourth of seven children. Her parents, immigrants from Japan, were truck farmers growing seasonal crops. When she was 16, Asawa and her family were interned, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. During this time, Asawa spent her free time studying drawing and painting with professional artists who were also interned.
For Asawa, the internment was a life-changing moment that deeply immersed her into the world of art. In 1994, she reflected on the experience: “I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one. Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the internment.”
Asawa studied to become an art teacher at Milwaukee State Teachers College in Wisconsin. Lingering anti-Japanese sentiment prevented her from completing her degree, so she studied art at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There she began to experiment with wire sculptures through techniques she learned from crocheting baskets. She also met her husband, architecture student Albert Lanier, at Black Mountain. Later they had six children together.
Asawa has exhibited her sculptures, paintings and drawings in solo and group shows at the Fresno Art Center, San Francisco Museum of Art, the Oakland Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, the Japanese American National Museum and the Japan Society in New York.
In 1968, Asawa co-founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop, which was so successful that it was implemented in 50 San Francisco public schools. It gave artists, musicians, gardeners and thousands of parents an opportunity to work with children and get involved in the public education process. In 1982, Asawa helped build the School of the Arts High School.
In 1985, Asawa was diagnosed with lupus, and since then, has reduced her public engagements.
Upon receiving the award, Asawa replied optimistically, “Thank you, San Francisco. Hope that they do more.”