Ruth Asawa Remembered en Plain Air, August 27.

15 Sep

What more fitting tribute to the supremely elemental Ruth Asawa, sculptor, educator and activist, could there be than an open air memorial at Golden Gate Park’s Band Shell late morning August 27.

Arriving just as Mark Dean Johnson from San Francisco State University (SFSU) was speaking of his memories of Ruth and revealing her surprisingly wicked humor, worthy of a Kyogen masterpiece, it was gratifying to see the Band Shell benches were filled with those remembering Asawa, their lives crossing with her own trajectory,sharing mutual comfortable, creative moments.

A small woman sitting at the end of a bench turned out to be Sumi Honnami, elder daughter of the couple who had maintained Honnami Taido in Japantown both before and after World War II, and whose Japanese aesthetic assocation harkens back to the Takagamine artistic colony during the Momoyama and early Edo periods. I sat between her and a formidable African American man with luxuriant braids; I later identified him as Chip O’Neal, directing the dance outreach program at San Francisco Ballet; he must inspire awe, respect and admiration to young boys in San Francisco’s public school system. It couldn’t have been better company for hearing the comments by Johnson, Asawa’s son, daughter and grandson and Nancy Pelosi.

Ruth, of course, is clearly remembered for her public fountains – the whimsical one near the Hyatt Hotel which Apple has agreed to preserve when building a new store at the corner of Post and Stockton; the mermaid in the Ghiradelli Square; the two striking origami inspired fountains in the Buchanan Street Mall in Japantown; the memorial fountain for the Japanese-American Internment in
San Jose. Ruth’s wire sculptures, wonderful hanging, pollen-like constructs with atleast two bulbs connected like a long drop of water about to release, are permanently installed at the De Young Museum; there also are the wispy tumble weed-like wires, one used long ago in Carlos Carvajal’s Wintermas at Nourse Auditorium.

Johnson spoke of Ruth’s design of the Garden of Remembrance at SFSU, with ten boulders to symbolize the ten internment camps where 110,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during World War II. She was dissatisfied because of a tree disturbing the composition. When told it was a memorial tree, Ruth said, “If it’s okay, I’ll come out at midnight and pour some poison.” I hope the planting was not for Anatol Joukowsky, the beloved dance teacher with the encyclopedic knowledge of Slavic folk dance forms and social behavior.

The next comment Johnson provided the information that Isao Ogura and Shigeru Namba, the workers who installed the boulders also worked on the Larry Ellison Japanese-style garden in Woodside. Johnson and Ruth were invited to see what they had been accomplished. Arriving to pick Ruth up for the drive, he found her in plaster-strewn sweat shirt and baggy trousers. Ruth smiled at him and said, “I thought I would dress down for the occasion.” Appreciative chuckles wafted through the audience.

Ruth’s younger daughter Addie shared the fact that during her last two years, Ruth could not use her hands and also had difficulty speaking, but her interest and connection with nature remained profound. They watched a documentary over KQED on the trek butterflies made from Canada and the Eastern United States to a special forest location in Mexico, requiring at least two life cycles of
butterflies to complete the circuit. At the end of the film, Ruth said, “They are eternal.”

She also disclosed that Ruth drew constantly, her drawings found on board meeting agendas, California Art Council review papers; minutes of meetings. Her vision was constant in the best possible way; a writer said of her, “I don’t think Ruth Asawa knows what a form in triplicate looks like.”

I had the great pleasure of collaborating with Ruth Asawa relating to mural at the Glass Gazebo, the Clinic building at the University of Californa, San Francisco. Originally, I thought the Irving Street entrance to the campus via the Gazebo’s basement pleaded for Ruth Asawa’s ability to transform such a dismal concrete space (The space subsequently has been progressively diminished by auxiliary offices.).

But the Clinic director saw a better use for the Asawa talent; a mural on the street level reception area. Ruth asked me to collect photographs of members of Millberry Union’s cafeteria employees. Ruth, her assistant Nancy Thompson and her students painted the MU likenesses on a mural that for at least a decade adorned the south-facing wall to the right of the Clinic’s main entrance. The mural was still on view for several years following my 1991 retirement; it subsequently has vanished. Whether painted over or stored, I have no idea. Like the Hyatt Fountain, it was a work involving students under Ruth’s and Nancy’s keen eyes.

Further tribute to Ruth and her husband Albert Lanier is the fact their children chose to live within a mile of the family home on Castro Street on the slopes of Noe Valley. The entire tribe came forward at the end, from the immediate children to what must be a great grandchild in its mother’s arm. I didn’t count but it looked close to 36 or 40.

We attendees signed books of remembrance, with colored pencils thoughtfully provided, penning our comments at various angles. It was a formidable line, wanting to pay tribute, saluting this woman who taught children that growing plants and flowers takes time, helping to make them aware life is a process.

We were gifted with a small program with Ruth’s image and two of her hanging sculptures on the cover; on the back was the Asawa recipe for garlic ginger salad dressing. Three musical offerings listed were performed by the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts musicians, one composition by an alumni. On the reverse of the program was the recipe for Ruth’s Ginger Garlic Salad Dressing, and below it, a 2002 Asawa comment:

“An artist is not special. An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special.”

Verily, Ruth Asawa Lanier, a woman for all seasons.

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