“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.

5 Fast Facts: Eva Zeisel

Impress your friends with five fast facts about designer Eva Zeisel (1906–2011), whose work is on view in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today through February 28, 2015.

Eva Zeisel (1906–2011)

Installation view of Eva Zeisel’s ceramics in Pathmakers

Installation view of Eva Zeisel’s ceramics in Pathmakers

1. Journeywoman

Hungarian-born Zeisel made a name for herself in Germany and Russia before settling in America in 1937. Early in her career, she apprenticed with a master potter and became the first female “journeyman” in the Hungarian Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers, and Potters.

2. Hazing Before Glazing

Zeisel’s Ted Talk recalled the “welcome” present she received on the first day of her job in a male-dominated Hamburg pottery shop. “Colleagues thoughtfully put on [my] wheel . . . a very nicely modeled natural man’s organs.” Zeisel’s blasé removal of it from her workstation garnered the attention and respect of her coworkers.

3. For the Birds

While most of Zeisel’s curvilinear designs recall the human body and intimate interpersonal interactions, she also created works that evoked Hungarian folk art birds.

Installation view of Eva Zeisel’s ceramics in Pathmakers

Installation view of Eva Zeisel’s ceramics in Pathmakers

4. Household Name

In 1942, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Castleton China commissioned Zeisel to create modern china for mass production. Her resulting designs were featured in MoMA’s first one-woman exhibition. Zeisel’s works have since been sold by Red Wing Pottery, Hall China Company, Crate and Barrel, and Design Within Reach.

5. Shmoo Who?

 Zeisel’s “Town and Country” line for Red Wing Pottery included biomorphic salt and pepper shakers sometimes referred to as “Shmoos.” These pieces share the name and shape of cartoon creatures developed by Al Capp. Capp’s Shmoos are gentle, low-maintenance beings who reproduce quickly and are considered delicacies.

—Addie Gayoso is associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Perpetual 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

Eva Zeisel (manufactured by Manifattura Mancioli), Belly Button Room Divider Prototype, 1957

Eva Zeisel (manufactured by Manifattura Mancioli), Belly Button Room Divider Prototype, 1957; Ceramic with metal rods, 60 x 36 in.; Photo by Brent Brolin; Courtesy of Eva Zeisel Archive

Eva Zeisel (manufactured by Manifattura Mancioli), Belly Button Room Divider Prototype, 1957; Ceramic with metal rods, 60 x 36 in.; Photo by Brent Brolin; Courtesy of Eva Zeisel Archive

Eva Zeisel is one of the best-known designers of the post–World War II era. Imbuing industrial products with a sensual and organic appearance, Zeisel won wide acclaim for her abstracted ceramic designs. Few people knew that Zeisel had been falsely accused of conspiring to assassinate Stalin, was imprisoned in Moscow in 1936, and later fled Nazi-occupied Austria. After her imprisonment—most of which she spent in solitary confinement—Zeisel said, “I hadn’t seen any colors in over a year and a half.” Her works after this period, including her work in Pathmakers, are often characterized by graceful, vibrantly colored designs with a sense of humor.

Who made it?

Hungarian-born designer Eva Zeisel (1906–2011) is the only woman whose works appear in both the midcentury and contemporary sections of Pathmakers. With an unprecedented 87-year-long career, Zeisel designed ceramics in Hungary, Germany, and the Soviet Union before moving to the U.S. in 1938. She was the first artist to have a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. She worked well past the age of 100.

How was it made?

Zeisel became known for her furniture, rugs, tiles, and ornamental objects but revealed “ceramics is my favorite, because I can feel it with my hands.” Designed for Manifattura Mancioli in 1958, Belly Button Room Divider consists of double-ended porcelain vessels with slight “belly button” depressions. Rebelling against the straight-line aesthetic of Modernism, Zeisel threaded her ceramic forms into long rows, creating sensual S-curves. Zeisel explained, “the inspiration for my work has been the human body—belly buttons, which I used quite often—nature, and the Hungarian folk art of my youth.” With candy-colored glazes and a sense of playfulness, her work in Pathmakers exemplifies Zeisel’s design goal “to be very friendly.”

Collection connection


Judy Chicago, Test Plate for Virginia Woolf from The Dinner Party, 1978; Glazed porcelain, 14 in. diameter; Gift of Elizabeth A. Sackler in honor of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and the 20th anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

In NMWA’s collection, Judy Chicago’s Test Plate for Virginia Woolf (1978) is also a glazed, porcelain prototype. Chicago created the test plate in preparation for her large installation The Dinner Party. On view in a permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum, The Dinner Party is one of the best-known works of the 1970s feminist movement, comprising three tables with place settings for 39 prominent women in history.

The test plate has the same dimensions as the final place setting. Each plate is unique to the woman it represents, but they share similar butterfly and vulvar forms. The floral imagery of Woolf’s plate—particularly its seed-like core and petals—may represent the fruitfulness of Woolf’s writing career. The curled petals also evoke an open book’s pages.

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

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.