Born on January 24, 1926 in Norwalk, CA to Japanese immigrants, her early life was blighted by her family’s detainment in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. After the war, Asawa left California in pursuit of a teaching degree from Milwaukee State Teachers College. Met by discrimination in Milwaukee, the artist abandoned her teaching degree and ventured to Black Mountain College in Asheville, NC. While at Black Mountain College, she studied under prominent artists such as John Cage, Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and Merce Cunningham.
Ruth leaves Black Mountain to join Albert Lanier in San Francisco, where they marry against the wishes of their families. They decide to live in San Francisco, a city with a vibrant arts community that they believe will be more hospitable to an interracial couple.
In 1968, Asawa cofounded the Alvarado Arts Program, which began at San Francisco’s Alvarado Elementary School and now brings together professional artists, parents, and teachers in many of the city’s schools to work with students in clay sculpture, visual arts, music dance, and theater.
Ruth formulates a teaching philosophy based on her personal experience: “Through the arts, you can learn many, many skills that you cannot learn through books and problem solving in the abstract. A child can learn something about color, about design, and about observing objects in nature. If you do that, you grow into a greater awareness of things around you. Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader.”
Asawa died on August 5, 2013 in San Francisco, CA.