Noe Valley Voice November 2005

Ruth Asawa's Sculptures on Prominent Display in De Young

By Corrie M. Anders

The M.H. de Young Museum paid the ultimate compliment to Ruth Asawa, a renowned sculptor and longtime Noe Valley resident, when it reopened last month in Golden Gate Park.

The museum graced its new home with 15 of Asawa's hanging wire sculptures--and placed them in a prominent location that will be hard for the public to miss.

Her three-dimensional works are the first thing visitors see at the entrance to the nine-story asymmetrical tower that leads to an observation deck. The tower also serves as an education center for the museum.

Although age and lingering illness have slowed the Castro Street artist, who will turn 80 years old in January, she is still very much involved in her work. She spent the past two years culling her impressive portfolio to choose the works she wanted to donate to the museum's permanent collection. "She picked the pieces [and] I worked with her on it," her daughter, Aiko Cuneo, said of the retrospective. "She said these were the ones that were historically significant."

The 15 delicate works span 50 years. They are made of copper, brass, or Montel wire, and are either hand-tied or hand-woven into crocheted sculptures. All are suspended from the ceiling in the small gallery at the bottom of the tower.

Cuneo said her mother was delighted that her pioneering works were now "in a museum collection that would stay together. Anyone who wanted to study her pieces could go to the museum. It's great [the museum] is in San Francisco, where she has made her home for so many years."

Responding to questions passed through her daughter, Asawa told the Voice she was impressed with the new de Young, whose predecessor was severely damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The new facility has double the space, and its many galleries house everything from 20th-century and contemporary art to African and Egyptian art to photography.

"It feels like a museum," said Asawa. "It has more space, which allows them to show a lot more work. It takes at least two visits to see everything."

The exhibition of her works in the permanent de Young collection, when coupled with her many other museum shows and public monuments, is a remarkable legacy for Asawa, a Japanese American who as a youth worked with her immigrant parents in the agricultural fields of southern California. During World War II, she and her mother and brothers and sisters were shipped off to an internment camp in Rohwer, Ark. After the war, Asawa pursued her artistic calling at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

Asawa and her husband, architect Albert Lanier, moved to Noe Valley in 1960 and have long been involved in neighborhood affairs. In the late 1960s, Asawa and art historian Sally Woodbridge co-founded the Alvarado Arts Workshop at Alvarado Elementary School. The workshop became a model for arts programs at 50 other San Francisco schools.

Asawa's body of work, which includes bronze statues, clay sculptures, paintings, and drawings, can be viewed throughout the Bay Area and California. Notable pieces include the "mermaid fountain" at Ghirardelli Square (1966), the origami-inspired Aurora fountain at Bayside Plaza (1986)--both in San Francisco--and the cast-bronze Japanese-American Internment Memorial Sculpture in San Jose (1994).

A collection of Asawa's sculptures and drawings will be on display at the Rena Bransten Gallery in downtown San Francisco, from Dec. 1 through the middle of January.