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13 August 2020

Ruth Asawa

United States: Ruth Asawa, 13 August 2020. Image from Virtual Stamp Club Blog.

From the press release:

U.S. Postal Service Reveals Additional Stamps for 2020

U.S. Flag Envelope and Ruth Asawa Coming Soon

WASHINGTON, DC — The U.S. Postal Service today announced two new stamp subjects for 2020. Details about the stamp dedication ceremonies and dates these new products will be available to purchase will be announced soon. All images are preliminary and are subject to change prior to printing.

Ruth Asawa
With these stamps, the U.S. Postal Service honors pioneering Japanese American artist Ruth Asawa (1926-2013). Showcasing Asawa’s wire sculptures, the pane includes 20 stamps, with two each of 10 designs, featuring photographs by Dan Bradica and Laurence Cuneo. The selvage features a photograph of Asawa taken by Nat Farbman in 1954 for Life magazine. Ethel Kessler served as art director and designer.

These stamps will be issued Thursday, 13 August 2020 in San Francisco, California.


Ruth Aiko Asawa (January 27, 1926 – August 5, 2013) was an American sculptor. Asawa’s work is in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Fifteen of her wire sculptures are on permanent display in the tower of San Francisco’s de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, and several of her fountains are located in public places in San Francisco. Asawa was an arts education advocate and the driving force behind the creation of the San Francisco School of the Arts, which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010 in tribute to her.

Wire sculptures by Ruth Asawa displayed at the David Zwirner gallery in New York City. Photograph taken on 26 September 2017.

Early Life and Education

Ruth Asawa was born in 1926 in Norwalk, California, one of seven children. Her parents, immigrants from Japan, operated a truck farm until the Japanese American internment during World War II. Except for Ruth’s father, the family was interned at an assembly center hastily set up at the Santa Anita racetrack for much of 1942, after which they were sent to Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. Ruth’s father, Umakichi Asawa, was arrested by FBI agents in February 1942 and interned at a detention camp in New Mexico. For six months following, the Asawa family did not know if he was alive or dead. Asawa did not see her father for six years. Ruth’s younger sister, Nancy (Kimiko), was visiting family in Japan when her family was interned. She was unable to return, as the U.S. prevented entry even of American citizens from Japan. Nancy was forced to stay in Japan for the duration of the war. Asawa said about the internment:

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, and I like who I am.

From a young age, Asawa expressed an interest in art. As a child, she was encouraged by her third grade teacher to create her own artwork. As a result, Asawa received first prize in a school arts competition in 1939, for her artwork about what makes someone American.

Ruth Asawa’s San Francisco Fountain, 1969-1970, San Francisco, CA. Photograph taken on 15 October 2017.

Following her graduation from the internment center’s high school, Asawa attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, intending to become an art teacher. She was prevented from attending college on the California coast, as the war had continued and the zone of her intended college was still declared prohibited to ethnic Japanese, whether or not they were American citizens. Unable to get hired for the requisite practice teaching to complete her degree, she left Wisconsin without a degree. (Wisconsin awarded the degree to her in 1998.)

The summer before her final year in Milwaukee, Asawa traveled to Mexico with her older sister Lois (Masako). Asawa attended an art class at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico; among her teachers was Clara Porset, an interior designer from Cuba. A friend of artist Josef Albers, Porset told Asawa about Black Mountain College where he was teaching. Asawa recounted:

I was told that it might be difficult for me, with the memories of the war still fresh, to work in a public school. My life might even be in danger. This was a godsend, because it encouraged me to follow my interest in art, and I subsequently enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

From 1946 to 1949, she studied at Black Mountain College with Josef Albers. Asawa learned to use commonplace materials from Albers and began experimenting with wire, using a variety of techniques. Like all Black Mountain College students, Asawa took courses across a variety of different art forms and this interdisciplinary approach helped to shape her artistic practice. Her study of drawing with Ilya Bolotowsky and Josef Albers was formative. Her drawings from this time explore pattern and repetition, and she was especially intrigued by the meander as a motif. She was particularly influenced by the summer sessions of 1946 and 1948, which featured courses by artist Jacob Lawrence, photography curator and historian Beaumont Newhall, Jean Varda, composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, artist Willem de Kooning, sculptor Leo Amino, and R. Buckminster Fuller. According to Asawa, the dance courses she took with Merce Cunningham were especially inspirational.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.383, Wall-Mounted Tied Wire, Open-Center, Six-Pointed Star, with Six Branches), c. 1967, showcased at the David Zwirner Gallery, New York City. Photograph taken on 26 September 2017.


In the 1950s, while a student at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, Asawa made a series of crocheted wire sculptures in various abstract forms, starting with baskets, and then exploring biomorphic forms that hang from the ceiling. She learned the wire-crocheting technique while on a field trip in Toluca, Mexico, where villagers used a similar technique to make baskets from galvanized wire. She explained:

I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.

After her trip to Mexico, Asawa’s drawing teacher, Ilya Bolotowsky, noted that her interest in conventional drawing had been replaced by a fascination with using wire as a way of drawing in space. Her looped-wire sculptures explore the relationship of interior and exterior volumes, creating, as she put it, “a shape that was inside and outside at the same time.” They have been described as embodying various material states: interior and exterior, line and volume, past and future. While her technique for making sculptures resembles weaving, she did not study weaving, nor did she use fiber materials.

Asawa’s wire sculptures brought her prominence in the 1950s, when her work appeared several times in the Whitney Biennial, in a 1954 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and in the 1955 São Paulo Art Biennial.

In 1962, Asawa began experimenting with tied wire sculptures of branching forms rooted in nature, which became increasingly geometric and abstract as she continued to work in that form. With these pieces, she sometimes treated the wire by galvanizing it. She also experimented with electroplating, running the electric current in the “wrong” direction in order to create textural effects. “Ruth was ahead of her time in understanding how sculptures could function to define and interpret space,” said Daniell Cornell, curator of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. “This aspect of her work anticipates much of the installation work that has come to dominate contemporary art.”

Asawa participated in the Tamarind Lithography Workshop Fellowship in Los Angeles in 1965 as an artist. Collaborating with the seven printmakers at the workshop, she produced fifty-two lithographs of friends, family (including her parents, Umakichi and Haru), natural objects, and plants.

Andrea, the mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, California (1966). Photograph taken on 18 July 2018 by Nick Amoscato.

In 1968, Asawa created her first representational work, a mermaid fountain in Ghirardelli Square on San Francisco’s waterfront. Near Union Square (on Stockton Street, between Post and Sutter Streets), she created a fountain for which she mobilized 200 schoolchildren to mold hundreds of images of the city of San Francisco in dough, which were then cast in iron. Over the years, she went on to design other public fountains and became known in San Francisco as the “fountain lady”.

Public Service and Arts Education Activism

Asawa had a passionate commitment to and was an ardent advocate for art education as a transformative and empowering experience, especially for children. In 1968, she was appointed to be a member of the San Francisco Arts Commission and began lobbying politicians and charitable foundations to support arts programs that would benefit young children and average San Franciscans. Asawa helped co-found the Alvarado Arts Workshop for school children in 1968. In the early 1970s, this became the model for the Art Commission’s CETA/Neighborhood Arts Program using money from the federal funding program, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which became a nationally replicated program employing artists of all disciplines to do public service work for the city.

Untitled (S.563, Hanging Six Lobed Form with Two Interior Spheres), 1956 showcased at the David Zwiner Gallery, New York City. Photograph taken on 26 September 2017.

The Alvarado approach worked to integrate the arts and gardening, mirroring Asawa’s own upbringing on a farm. Asawa believed in a hands-on experience for children, and followed the approach “learning by doing”. Asawa believed in the benefit of children learning from professional artists, something she adopted from learning from practicing artists at Black Mountain College. She believed that classroom teachers could not be expected to teach the arts, on top of all their other responsibilities. Eighty-five percent of the program’s budget went toward hiring professional artists and performers for the students to learn from. This was followed up in 1982 by building a public arts high school, the San Francisco School of the Arts, which was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in her honor in 2010. Asawa would go on to serve on the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976, and from 1989-1997 she served as a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Personal Life

In July 1949 Asawa married architect Albert Lanier, whom she met in 1947 at Black Mountain College. The couple had six children: Xavier (1950), Aiko (1950), Hudson (1952), Adam (1956–2003), Addie (1958), and Paul (1959). Albert Lanier died in 2008. The family moved to the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco in 1960, where she was active for many years in the community.


Asawa died of natural causes on August 5, 2013, at her San Francisco home at the age of 87.

The Estate of Ruth Asawa is represented the David Zwirner Gallery. The gallery staged a debut of Asawa’s work from September 13 – October 21, 2017.

Awards and Honors

In 2010, School of the Arts High School in San Francisco was renamed Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in honor of Asawa.
A Google Doodle for May 1, 2019, the first day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, was made to celebrate Ruth Asawa.

On August 13, 2020, the United States Postal Service will issue a set of postage stamps to honor Ruth Asawa.

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