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Ruth Asawa Found Her Artistic Calling In An Internment Camp


Among the Japanese-American internees during World War II was Ruth Asawa. When she was 16, she and her family were sent to an internment camp at the racetrack at Santa Anita in California. They lived in the stables and Asawa recalled that the stench of horse manure hung heavily in the air. Later, the family was moved to a camp in Arkansas. But it was in this unpromising environment that Asawa found her calling. She spent her days drawing and painting. And after the war, she became a renowned artist.

If you've ever visited San Francisco, you've likely seen Asawa's work. She's known as the Fountain Lady because she designed so many of the city's fountains. And her intricate abstract sculptures, many of them crocheted from wire are now in the collections of many major museums.

Ruth Asawa died earlier this week in San Francisco. She was 87. Her son Paul Lanier joins me now to talk about his mother's legacy. And, Paul, thanks for being with us. We're so sorry for your family's loss.

PAUL LANIER: Thank you very much. And it's so incredible to be speaking to your audience about my mom.

BLOCK: Well, tell us a little bit about your mom's experience of internment. Did she talk much about it? What did she tell you?

LANIER: She said very little about it. And one of the things she mentioned is she met some Disney cartoonists who are also Japanese internees. And they taught her a lot about drawing. A lot of the internees made things out of wood and seashells and, of course, fabric and sewing. And she did a lot of drawing in camp.

BLOCK: Well after the war, your mother studied to become a teacher. And she was told that she would not get hired because she was Japanese-American.

LANIER: Yes. I guess her friends, and they were rightly so in advising her that no school could hire a Japanese right after the war. So she heard about Black Mountain College. And so she went and met all those incredible artists at that school.

BLOCK: And it was an incredible lineup at the time. Buckminster Fuller, the architect; Merce Cunningham, the choreographer and dancer; and the artist Josef Albers were all among her teachers, right?

LANIER: That's right. And Josef Albers, the father of modern color theory was her drawing teacher. And he was a very difficult teacher, very detailed, exacting drawing class.

BLOCK: How did your mother start sculpting with wire - these crocheted wire sculptures that she became so known for?

LANIER: She went to Mexico and saw that they were making these wire baskets to carry eggs. So she learned how to loop the wire. It's almost like crocheting. And so, she went back to Black Mountain and made one of these things. And Albers said, keep making those.

BLOCK: Well, we mentioned that your mother is so well known in the Bay Area for her public art, and especially the fountains all around San Francisco. Describe those fountains and the place that they have in public life there.

LANIER: There's her piece at Union Square at the Hyatt Hotel, the Bronze Fountain. She'd have classrooms full of school children helping her to shape the material to design that fountain.

BLOCK: How did they do that?

LANIER: Well, they worked with a material called baker's clay, which is a play dough. It's just flour, salt and water. And I think they made self portraits of themselves. And then so all these little figures are on part of the fountain. And many, many people, her friends and family, worked on that piece. She always tried to involve other artists and to help other artists and to have them help her on her commissions.

BLOCK: What's it like for you and your siblings to walk around San Francisco and see those fountains, see the stamp of your mother in so many places?

LANIER: It just seems normal because she was just our mom. And it's just part of normal growing up or our growing up.

BLOCK: Yeah. Well, Paul Lanier, thanks very much for talking with us about your mother. We appreciate it.

LANIER: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: That's Paul Lanier. His mother, the artist Ruth Asawa, died this week at the age of 87. Her memorial service will be held later this month in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.