“Fountain Lady”: Ruth Asawa in San Francisco

While visiting family in San Francisco, I visited some of the city’s public artworks by Ruth Asawa—one of the artists featured in NMWA’s exhibition Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today. Living in San Francisco for most of her adult life, Asawa worked as an artist, arts educator, and arts advocate. Dubbed the “Fountain Lady,” Asawa created major public artworks in prominent tourist areas.


Ruth Asawa’s Andrea

Situated in Ghirardelli Square, Andrea (1968) depicts two mermaids surrounded by frogs, turtles, and lily pads. Strikingly different from the abstract wire sculptures for which Asawa is best known, Andrea was Asawa’s first public commission as well as her first major representational work. Asawa believed the whimsical fountain would tap into the dreams of both children and adults wondering what lays beneath the water’s surface. The fountain’s plaque tells the story of how Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect for the square, preferred an abstract work and fought to have Andrea replaced. However, the public united behind Asawa, and the sculpture remained.

The San Francisco Bay and Bay Bridge serve as a dramatic backdrop for another fountain by Asawa, Aurora, located at 188 Embarcadero. Water flows from the top of the wheel-shaped steel sculpture and around its perimeter before splashing into a blue-tiled pool.

Ruth Asawa’s Aurora

Ruth Asawa’s Aurora

Aurora is based on Asawa’s folded paper forms—an important part of her artistic vocabulary. She learned origami as a child and was encouraged by one of her Black Mountain College professors, Josef Albers, to explore the technique further. Throughout her life, she used paper for a range of artistic and educational projects.


Ruth Asawa’s Redding School, Self-Portrait

Redding School, Self-Portrait (1984), located in Father Alfred E. Boeddeker Park, is a bas relief sculptural wall made of glass fiber-reinforced concrete. The mural depicts a prominent public servant in the city’s history, Franciscan friar Boedekker, surrounded by children, houses, airplanes, and animals.

For this work, Redding Elementary School students made their own sculptures out of baker’s dough for Asawa to assemble into one complete mold.

The project reflects Asawa’s commitment to encouraging children in the arts; in the late 1960s she and her friend Sally Woodbridge developed an innovative program through which children could learn directly from artists. Later, she helped establish a public high school for the arts.

Another work, Origami Fountains, consists of two sculptures. As its title implies, the lotus bloom shape of each sculpture was inspired by origami—particularly appropriate given the work’s location in Japantown. The distinct sculptures are situated on a bed of large flat stones embedded in cement and surrounded by a circular multi-tiered stone bench. When compared to the sleek and modern Aurora, Origami Fountains seems more organic in form and finish.


Ruth Asawa’s Origami Fountains

Visiting Asawa’s public works gave me a greater awareness of her breadth, talent, and creativity. Given her connection to the city, it isn’t surprising that each work reflects not only her unique artistic vision but also a sensitivity to place, setting, and audience. Asawa created nine public artworks in San Francisco—each worth a visit.

—Ellen Pollak is the foundation and government support officer and national and international committees manager at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Purposeful Pathmakers

Dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today create innovative designs, maintain craft traditions, and incorporate new aesthetics into fine art in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each week, compare and draw parallels between works on view in Pathmakers and NMWA collection favorites.

On view in Pathmakers

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.407), ca. 1952

A hanging sculpture by Asawa is on view at NMWA, similar to the work that the artist holds in this photograph by her close friend Imogen Cunningham. Made of crocheted copper wire, the work in Pathmakers hangs from above. Asawa’s technique emphasizes the sculpture’s intertwining lines, organic-inspired forms, and transparency.


Imogen Cunningham, Ruth Holding a Form-Within-Form Sculpture, 1952; © 2015 Imogen Cunningham Trust; © Estate of Ruth Asawa

Who made it?

American artist Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) is renowned for her crocheted-wire sculptures, her public art commissions, and her advocacy for the arts. She was born in Norwalk, in Southern California, and was interned during World War II along with her Japanese-American family. Her interest in art grew during that time, as she learned from Japanese-American artists who were also interned. After her education and her move to San Francisco, she became an advocate for arts education—she helped found the San Francisco School of the Arts, which is now named after her.

How was it made?

After World War II, Asawa attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she met Josef and Anni Albers. Josef Albers encouraged Asawa to experiment with non-traditional materials and artistic processes. Asawa learned the basic technique for these sculptures on a trip to Toluca, Mexico, in 1947, from villagers who crocheted wire baskets. She had a long fascination with hourglass forms—as a young girl in California, she used her feet to draw similar shapes in the sand while riding on the back of her family’s farm equipment. Asawa created a large body of crocheted-wire sculptures, mainly during the 1950s. Some of these works are long and slender, while others are bulbous, and many have layers—“forms-within-forms”—like the one pictured in Cunningham’s photograph.

Collection connection

Frida Baranek, Untitled, 1991; Iron, 44 x 75 x 46 in.; Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund

Frida Baranek, Untitled, 1991; Iron, 44 x 75 x 46 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund

In NMWA’s collection, an untitled sculpture by Frida Baranek, created in 1991, also evokes organic forms through an innovative use of metal. In Baranek’s work, a wheel-shape tangle of iron wires is bisected by heavy iron rods, and these weighty materials form a piece that calls to mind a tumbleweed, nest, or bramble.

Baranek, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1961, studied industrial design in London and now lives and works in Brazil and New York. She is part of a generation of sculptors using industrial materials in surprising ways, and the sculpture in NMWA’s collection is characteristic of her use of metal. Her pieces juxtapose chaos and order, are both airy and weighty, and invite viewers to marvel at familiar materials.

Visit the museum and explore Pathmakers, on view through February 28, 2016.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Now Open: Women Shape Design in “Pathmakers”

NMWA’s latest exhibition, Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, is now open! Museum staff have been busy transforming the 2nd-floor galleries to display more than 80 objects including furniture, ceramics, textiles and jewelry. The exhibition explores the lasting impact of women artists and designers on midcentury Modernism through making groundbreaking commercial and industrial designs, maintaining craft traditions, and incorporating new aesthetics into fine art.


Guest curator Jennifer Scanlan talks to members during Member Preview Day

In the 1950s and ’60s, an era when painting, sculpture, and architecture were dominated by men, women had considerable impact in alternative materials such as textiles, ceramics, and metals. Pioneers in these fields—including Ruth Asawa, Edith Heath, Sheila Hicks, Karen Karnes, Dorothy Liebes, Alice Kagawa Parrott, Lenore Tawney, and Eva Zeisel—had tremendous influence as designers, artists, and teachers.

Visitors explore prints by Anni Albers and a textile work by Marianne Strengell

Visitors explore prints by Anni Albers and a textile work by Marianne Strengell

Their artistic practices varied widely—some exhibited in New York City galleries, others took part in the regional handicraft scene in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and still others collaborated with corporations such as General Motors. Pathmakers also illustrates parallels between women creating work in the United States and Scandinavia, where craft often served as a pathway to Modernist innovation.

Guest curators Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales also consider contemporary female artists and designers whose work builds upon that of their midcentury counterparts. Polly Apfelbaum and Michelle Grabner are represented by installations centered on woven and knitted patterns, while Anne Wilson’s work focuses on the processes of textile manufacture. Magdalene Odundo and Christine Nofchissey McHorse adapt traditional techniques and absorb influences from global sources. Furniture and fixture designers Vivian Beer, Front Design, and Hella Jongerius have also expanded the repertoire of making, while Gabriel A. Maher looks at the ways gender is constructed by the clothes we wear.

Pathmakers 2

A visitor studies Front’s Axor WaterDream/Axor Shower System

Pathmakers stresses the connections between midcentury and contemporary design and aesthetics,” said NMWA Associate Curator Virginia Treanor. “The installation will encourage the comparison of the modern and contemporary periods in a way that enables close inspection.”

Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today is on view through February 28, 2016. Visit this Sunday for a Free Community Day with a pop-up makerspace and enjoy noon gallery talks every Wednesday!