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Crossing paths with Ruth Asawa

Recollections on my brief contact with the artist Ruth Asawa—erik schmitt

As a teenager my father took me on a road trip down the Pacific coast from Seattle to San Francisco. One of the sights we went to see in the city was a massive fountain Ruth Asawa had cast in bronze near Union Square. Hers was a name I heard often growing up. Upon being released from a World War Two internment camp she had found herself in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where our family lived. There she developed a close friendship with my father and two aunts. Drawn to the brilliant faculty assembling at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, my aunt Elaine and Ruth went off to study there with Joseph Albers while my aunt Elizabeth went to study with Merce Cunningham. 

But aside from seeing her sculpture in San Francisco her work was a mystery to me. Then in 1992 I was studying design and photography at The California College of Arts in San Francisco (I had been drawn to the school partially in an attempt to experience the legendary Bauhaus inspired Black Mountain educational experience that I heard about growing up). When Black Mountain College held its reunion in San Francisco I was lucky enough to be invited. The gathering was held at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. Over the course of a weekend former students and teachers described their experiences at the college to the group. It was a wonderful experience—surrounded by a great art collection and hearing stories about the faculty and students that included some of the towering figures of the 20th-century avant-garde in America; Robert Rauschenberg, Jacob Lawrence, Kenneth Noland, John Cage,  Arthur Penn, Walter Gropius.

My brother Stephen Schmitt, Ruth Asawa and my aunt Elaine Urbain at the Black Mountain reunion

In my notes from that day I found these entries. Claude Stoler described how Charles Eames preferred the turmoil at Black Mountain to the disciplined atmosphere of U.C. Berkeley where he said he was forced to re-habilitate students not teach them. Robert Bliss described how physical work like gardening and constructing buildings were thoroughly intertwined with class work. Patsy Lynch Woods talked of the stunning natural beauty and a learning process uninterrupted by traffic and the distractions of an urban setting. My uncle Pete Jennerjahn describing how they used materials that were available; moss, leaves and garbage (there was no art supply store) and how Albers once told him how walking on the checkerboard floor at his bank disturbed him because he felt like he was stepping down and then up as he walked over the surface. Peter Oberlander describing how Walter Gropius, after dribbling ashes onto his cherished designs had told him "You've been abstract too long. It's time to learn something useful like furniture making or ditch digging". And how his architecture courses paled compared to the rigorous visual exercises of Albers. My aunt Elaine described a project she constructed out of sap and pig fat in Alber's class. "Excellent" he said, "now throw it out".

One of the last presenters described how Black Mountain was a product of its times and impossible to recreate. Sobering to a young artist in the midst of trying to re-create it.

But the best part of the experience was being invited to Ruth's house after the event. At her small craftsman home sitting atop a hill above the Castro district we spent the warm Bay Area afternoon out on her deck drinking wine and talking.

Ruth's sculptures hanging in her living room

I heard Stephen De Staebler, a sculptor who studied painting under Ben Shahn describe how one morning, Robert Rauschenberg called out to his fellow student Cy Twombly to come and look at a white butterfly that had become stuck in the pigment of a painting he was working on. "I like to think I was present at the birth of the combine," Mr. De Staebler said.

I herd Ruth tell my father how upon showing her baskets to galleries she had been told if an object was practical it wasn't art which inspired her to close the forms, transforming them into non-functional sculpture.

Then 13 years later in 2005 Ruth had a major show of her work at the newly re-opened Herzog and de Meuron designed M. H. de Young Museum. My father and I went to the show. It was wonderful seeing her work perfectly displayed and lit. The sculptures were ethereal and evocative of mathematical formulas given form—models of the universe turning in upon itself. At the bookstore my father proudly told the girl at the counter that we were headed over to Ruth's house. That she was a family friend. 

A classical bronze sculpture and one of ruths sculptures inside her front door

A caretaker ushered us through Ruth's house and down to the kitchen where Ruth and her husband the architect Albert Lanier sat at a kitchen table. On the way I caught glimpses of rooms dense with art. Ruth gave us hugs and gestured for us to join them. Her ability to speak was severely limited but a smile was always on her face. My father and her carried on a slow labored conversation about the past, and her show. We were asked to join them for dinner of beef stew and a Sarah Lee pie. All around us hung her work. The sculptural forms throwing a lattice of shadows upon the walls. I asked if I could wander through the house and take some pictures, Ruth said of course and asked the caretaker to lead me upstairs.

In the hallway on the way up a wire sculpture reminiscent of a sea anemone clung to the wall beside a classical Greek looking bronze sculpture of a young boy. I peered out through the doorway to the front patio where I'd sat years ago at the reunion. The entire side of the house was covered with terra cotta death masks. They were haunting in the dim light playing on them from a single 100 watt bulb. 

The exterior wall next to Ruth's front door covered with terra cotta death masks

Wandering into the small living room I came upon a classic Bay Area craftsman interior. A ceiling with an exposed framework of redwood timbers, walls of wood paneling with built in shelves. The space was dimly lit and Ruth's wire sculptures hanging in clusters between the beams above slowly materialized. Busts in bronze and clay sat on shelves, small sculptural forms populated the windowsills and paintings provided the notes of color on the walls. A few of them small,  framed color studies by her former teacher Joseph Albers.

I returned to the kitchen and Ruth signed monographs of her work that we had bought at the show. We said goodbye. As we were leaving I asked if I could come back and seriously photograph the house (without a tripod I had been shooting very high iso images with lots of grain). Of course, they said, just call.

Five years later I called Ruth's daughter to ask if I could come by and shoot the house. I'm sorry she said. Ruth isn't doing well, and besides, we've had to sell most of the art to pay for her care. The house isn't what it once was. I thanked her and wished Ruth well.