Ruth Asawa. Life as Art: Black Mountain College and Beyond

Clip from Robert Snyder’s film Ruth Asawa: Of Forms and Growth, 1978. © Masters & Masterworks Productions, Inc.

Ruth Asawa attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina from 1946 to 1949, studying with artist Josef Albers and architect Buckminster Fuller, whose lessons had a profound impact on her life work. At Black Mountain, teachers privileged problem-solving and the process of making art as much as the final object.1 The school’s spirit of discipline, economy, and resourceful creativity echoed that of her upbringing during the Great Depression in Norwalk, California—a small agricultural town in Los Angeles County, where her family worked on a large-production vegetable farm. Albers instructed that all materials, no matter how common, have potential. Under his direction, her exercises in repetition, pattern, and form2 on paper—her attention would soon turn from paper to copper and brass wire—taught her how to allow shape to emerge from a material rather than impose predetermined ideas upon it.3 Meanwhile, Fuller’s ideas about the connections between design and society and his commitment to addressing basic needs like shelter, as in his geodesic dome, instilled in Asawa a belief in the continuity of the self, art, and society.4 With these integrated approaches to artmaking as a model, her practice would span from individual objects to public monuments to the Alvarado School Art Workshop—a community-based arts program Asawa started in 1968 in San Francisco public schools.

  1. Karin Higa, “What Is an Asian American Woman Artist?” in Art, Women, California 1950–2000: Parallels and Intersections, ed. Diana Burgess Fuller and Daniela Salvioni (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 86. ↩︎

  2. Leah Ollman, “The Industrious Line,” Art in America, May 2007, 161. ↩︎

  3. Robert Snyder, Ruth Asawa: Of Forms and Growth, produced and directed by Robert Snyder (Santa Barbara, CA: Masters & Masterworks, 1978), video, 28 minutes. ↩︎

  4. Leah Ollman, “The Industrious Line,” Art in America, May 2007, 161. ↩︎