Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The United States Postal Service released a new stamp in 2020, which celebrates the work of renowned Japanese American artist Ruth Asawa.
Though Asawa’s work stretches across a number of mediums including drawing, painting and printing, she is best known for her distinctive wire-frame sculptures: intricate abstract shapes that seem airy and weightless despite their size and Asawa’s use of heavy industrial materials.
The pane of 20 stamps features 17 of Asawa’s sculptures in 10 stamp designs featured in photographs by Laurence Cuneo and Dan Bradica. The pieces shown highlight the unique, almost organic shapes made by Asawa that defied traditional understanding of what a sculpture could be.
Asawa was born in Norwalk, California, on Jan. 24, 1926. She first started sculpting in 1946 while studying at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
Before that, she had been enrolled for three years at Milwaukee State Teachers College, Wisconsin, after graduating from the internment camp high school at Rohwer Relocation Center in McGehee, Arkansas. Asawa had intended to become an art teacher. Those plans fell through, however, after public sentiment against the Japanese and concerns for her safety prevented her from securing a job for the final year of work-study required to complete her degree.
Instead, Asawa began studying at Black Mountain College, helped by a loan made by the Church of the Crossroads in Honolulu to the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, an organization that helped Japanese American students out of the internment camps and into colleges in the Midwest and the East Coast.
There Asawa pursued her passion for art, and found mentors like the artist Josef Albers; Merce Cunningham, the choreographer and dancer; and Buckminster Fuller, the architect and inventor. With their encouragement she began to develop her unique and distinctive art style that would bring her international attention and help shape modern art for a generation.
William J. Gicker is the Director of Stamp Services for the United States Postal Service. Gicker said that the Asawa stamps are part of a loose series of modern-art stamps that the Postal Service has been issuing since the 1990s.
According to Gicker, the modern-art stamp series is not a regularly occurring series, but something put out whenever the Postal Service finds artists it wants to feature. It began in 1996 with stamps featuring the art of Georgia O’Keeffe, and as a format generally features the art in the stamps themselves, with a photo of the artist at work in the selvage (i.e. the space in the pane around the stamps themselves).
Gicker said that Stamp Services staff were excited to add Asawa’s work to their modern-art series.
“Diversity is very important to the Postal Service, so when doing a series like this we try to figure out ways to expand and be as inclusive as we possibly can,” Gicker said. “When Ruth Asawa came up as a possible subject, it seemed like it would make perfect sense to honor her in this series and treat her art in this way.”
Gicker said that the Postal Service has been very happy with the positive response the Asawa stamps have been getting.
“When we do modern art, it’s always a question: will people get it? Will they like it? Will they want to use it? So we’ve been very happy, with Ruth Asawa, but also with other modern artists that we’ve featured. The response has been very very positive, which is great, and makes us very happy.”
The Postal Service held a virtual dedication ceremony when the stamps were unveiled in August. In it, George Takei spoke in his capacity as chair emeritus of the board of trustees of the Japanese American National Museum. He described his first experiences with Asawa’s works, and how they resonated with him and his experience as a Japanese American who had gone through internment.
“Her work was like nothing I had seen before,” said Takei. “These pieces were light, floating, almost evanescent. They were buoyant woven wire bubbles hanging from the ceiling. Some were elegantly voluptuous effervescences. Some shimmered like exotic undersea growths. Others were luminous surreal organisms. They were all made of artfully woven steel wires – the very material that once confined her so long ago. Ruth had taken the ugly biting symbols of hate and incarceration, and with her creative imagination transformed it into buoyant things of beauty.”
Asawa eventually returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she married architect Albert Lanier and raised six children with him. There her art began reaching a wider audience and she became a fixture of the region’s art scene. Some of her works can still be found in the region’s most visited public spaces, and in 1982 the city of San Francisco declared Feb. 12 to be Ruth Asawa Day.
It was also there that she established herself as a vocal arts and education advocate. She campaigned for and helped found the first public arts high school in San Francisco, the San Francisco School of the Arts, which was eventually renamed in her honor as the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. She served on the San Francisco Arts Commission, the California Arts Council and the National
Endowment for the Arts, and as a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
She passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.
Addie Lanier is one of Ruth Asawa’s daughters and helps run the Asawa estate. She said that they were thrilled to see the stamps bring Asawa’s art to a wider audience.
“It’s been pretty amazing that her little sculptures are affordable for everybody to have now – a little poster, or just some idea of what she did,” said Lanier.
According to Lanier, the stamps feel like one part of a recent explosion of interest in her mother.
“She’s just being championed by a lot of people right now,” Lanier said. “[In 2019] she was a Google Doodle. [And in 2020] she was a stamp and had a biography released. She’s desired in a lot of collections now. She’s known by a lot of curators. So the stamp really helped share her with a broader audience.”
A biography of Asawa, “Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa,” by Marilyn Chase, was published in April (2020) after the author spent two years researching Asawa.
Also this July , a new expanded edition of Asawa’s 2006 art catalog, “The Sculptures of Ruth Asawa, Contours in the Air,” was released with additional pictures and original essays.
And [in Sept 2019] a picture book about Asawa came out, “A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa,” by Andrea D’Aquino.
D’Aquino’s book covers Asawa’s early life as a child and the influence the natural world had on her budding artistic sensibilities, as well as her time at Black Mountain College. D’Aquino said that she was inspired to make a children’s book about the artist after visiting an exhibition of Asawa’s work and feeling the universal appeal of the pieces.
“Sometimes gallery work can be very esoteric and often off-putting, and even, I want to say, a little elitist,” D’Aquino said. “But even though [Asawa’s art] was so sophisticated and beautiful, I was struck by how it connected with the people around me of all of backgrounds and ages. I think that’s a rare thing, especially in contemporary art sometimes.”
You can find out more about Ruth Asawa and her work at ruthasawa.com.
Scott Baba is a writer and editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A yonsei, he has spent his life as an active member of the Japanese American community. He currently reports for KPFA News in Berkeley, California.