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Stanford University
The Faces of Ruth Asawa
Ongoing Exhibition

The Faces of Ruth Asawa

July 6, 2022–

An image of artist Ruth Asawa infront of her Wall of Masks

Ruth Asawa with life masks on the exterior wall of her house. Photography by Terry Schmitt. ARTWORK: Untitled (LC.012, Wall of Masks), c. 1966–2000. Ceramic, bisque-fired clay. © 2022 Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy David Zwirner. Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University. William Alden Campbell and Martha Campbell Art Acquisition Fund, 2020.172.1–233

 

Meier Family Galleria

 

 

About the Installation at the Cantor


 

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University acquired Untitled (LC.012, Wall of Masks) in 2020. These 233 masks, which originally hung on the exterior of Ruth Asawa’s family home in Noe Valley, have never been shown in their entirety outside their original context. After two years of conservation treatment and careful planning, they were mounted as part of the long-term installation, The Faces of Ruth Asawa, at the Cantor.This focused exhibition, curated by Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, PhD, assistant curator of American art and co-director of the Asian American Art Initiative, explores Asawa’s intimate relationship with clay and offers a new context with which to understand her diverse body of work.

 

This exhibition is organized by the Cantor Arts Center. We gratefully acknowledge support from the Asian American Art Initiative Program Gift Fund and the Robert Mondavi Family Fund.

 

 


 

 

About Ruth Asawa


 

portrait of Asawa

Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) was a Japanese American artist, educator, and arts advocate primarily active in San Francisco, California. Born to immigrant parents in Norwalk, California, she and her family were among 120,000 Japanese Americans forcibly incarcerated under Executive Order 9066 in 1942. Introduced as a 16-year-old to professional Disney artists who were also imprisoned, Asawa’s early interest in art survived these horrible circumstances. Upon her release, she enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College, intending to pursue a career as an art instructor, but she was not allowed to complete her degree due to racial discrimination. In 1946, Asawa joined as a student at Black Mountain College, the avant-garde liberal arts college in North Carolina. Asawa studied with Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller during this formative artistic period and met her future spouse Albert Lanier.

Asawa is best known for her sinuous wire sculptures that she began making while studying at Black Mountain College. In 1947, Asawa went to Toluca, Mexico, where she learned how to crochet wire from local artists who used the technique to create baskets. With this technique, Asawa went on to create a complex body of sculpture that challenged conventions of the genre during the mid-twentieth century. After Asawa and Lanier moved to San Francisco in 1949, they became parents to six children and active community members in the Bay Area. As an arts activist, Asawa co-founded the public high school, the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, and served as an influential member of the San Francisco Arts Commission and California Arts Council, among other undertakings.

Alongside her public and personal engagements, Asawa always made art, expanding the range of her wire sculptures as well as working in other media. Artistically, her practice is marked by an interest in exploring the aesthetic possibilities of repetitive gestures—wire looping, line drawing, paper-folding, etc. She modeled an artist’s life that blended rigorous artistic practice with community outreach and familial devotion with professional ambition, all driven by a fervent belief in art’s capacity to effect change. For this longtime arts advocate and leader in the greater Bay Area, conversations about modernism and aesthetics were inextricable from discussions of arts accessibility and education. A creative spirit with a deep sense of personal integrity, Asawa tirelessly worked to help others understand the primacy of art in creating a brighter world for future generations.

 

Making the Masks


 

Mask-making processThough primarily known for her hanging biomorphic wire sculptures, Asawa was an artist of diverse talents and interests. In addition to wire, she worked with paper, bronze, wood, clay, and other materials. This installation highlights her longstanding relationship with clay, which she principally engaged with through mask-making. For more than 30 years, Asawa made a practice of casting the faces of friends, students, family members, and community members. To make the masks, she would first apply petroleum jelly to a sitter’s face to prevent adhesion. She then applied plaster in layers, taking special care around the eyes, nose, and hairline. After allowing it to set for around five minutes, Asawa carefully removed the mold and let it harden. Using this plaster mold, she created a clay positive that was then fired, thus completing the mask-making process.

Asawa became interested in mask-making after reading a 1966 Life magazine article on Roman portraiture. She learned the technique of casting faces from a public-school art teacher that same year. Her first masks were fired by friends who were ceramic artists. In 1980 her son, Paul Lanier, who later assisted and fired many of the masks, improved her casting technique, and Asawa continued making masks until 2000. She created more than 400 individual masks in her lifetime and often produced duplicates so she could keep one and give one to the sitter.

Far from a solitary artist, Asawa had a large family and a broad social circle. She cast the faces of local legends, including business magnate Cyril Magnin, and fellow artists Gwendolyn Knight and Trude Guermonprez—both of whom she had met while studying at Black Mountain College. She also captured many of her students’ faces and those of her children and grandchildren at various stages of their lives. The masks were placed on the wall with no overarching plan or pattern of arrangement, generating unexpected connections between sitters. Untitled (LC. 012, Wall of Masks) is considered a single art object composed of 233 individual ceramic face masks. Asawa originally hung these masks on the exterior entryway of her Noe Valley home, next to the front doors that she had hand-carved from slabs of redwood. To visit Ruth Asawa’s home was to encounter a visual archive of the people she interacted with throughout her life. Looking at these faces, we are offered an intimate glimpse of Asawa’s democratic vision of the world, where anyone could become a work of art.

 

Masks of Interest


 

Below you can find a series of groupings with masks of interest from the installation on view at the Cantor Arts Center.

The Asawa/Lanier Family

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Local Legends

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Artists and Performers

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The Asawa/Lanier Family


 

A color image of a clay portrait of the artist Ruth Asawa.

Ruth Asawa

Artist Ruth Asawa's mask.

Mask of Ruth Asawa’s sister.

Kimiko Asawa Devadas

Mask of Kimiko Asawa Devadas, artist Ruth Asawa's sister.

A color image of a clay portrait of artist Ruth Asawa and her husband Albert Lanier's daughter Aiko Lanier.

Aiko Lanier

Mask of Aiko Lanier, artist Ruth Asawa and her husband Albert Lanier's daughter.

A color image of a clay portrait of artist Ruth Asawa and her husband Albert Lanier's daughter Addie Lanier.

Addie Lanier

Mask of Addie Lanier, artist Ruth Asawa and her husband Albert Lanier's daughter.

A color image of a clay portrait of artist Ruth Asawa's sister Chiyo Knewbow.

Chiyo Knewbow

Mask of Chiyo Knewbow, artist Ruth Asawa's sister.

A color image of a clay portrait of artist Ruth Asawa and her husband Albert Lanier's son Adam Lanier.

Adam Lanier

Mask of Adam Lanier, artist Ruth Asawa and her husband Albert Lanier's son.

A color image of a clay portrait of artist Ruth Asawa and her husband Albert Lanier's son Paul Lanier.

Paul Lanier

Mask of Paul Lanier, artist Ruth Asawa and her husband Albert Lanier's son.

 

 

Local Legends


 

A color image of a clay portrait of American businessperson Cyril Magnin.

Cyril Magnin

Mask of American businessperson Cyril Magnin.

Cyril Magnin was an American businessperson who served as president and CEO of Joseph Magnin Co., a luxury department store chain founded in San Francisco. During his lifetime he was colloquially referred to as “Mr. San Francisco.”

A color image of a clay portrait of Bay Area journalist, educator and author Jan Yanehiro.

Jan Yanehiro

Mask of Jan Yanehiro, Bay Area journalist, educator and author.

Jan Yanehiro is a Bay Area journalist, educator, and author. She was the host of Evening Magazine, a television show that ran for 15 years on CBS 5 San Francisco. She narrated six documentaries on Japanese incarceration. Yanehiro is the founding director of the School of Communications and Media Technologies at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

A color image of a clay portrait of Blanche Pastorino, proprietor of Galerie de Blanche, a San Francisco restaurant.

Blanche Pastorino

Mask of Blanche Pastorino, proprietor of Galerie de Blanche, a San Francisco restaurant.

Blanche Pastorino was the proprietor of Blanche’s, or Galerie de Blanche, a San Francisco restaurant in Mission Creek. Opened in 1959 while the area was still mostly industrial, the restaurant attracted many artists and writers, including Asawa, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Imogen Cunningham.

A color image of a clay portrait of labor and affordable housing rights activist Geraldine Johnson.

Geraldine Johnson

Mask of Geraldine Johnson, labor and affordable housing rights activist.

Geraldine Johnson was a prominent labor and affordable housing rights activist in the Bay Area. She was a member of the San Francisco Labor Council and started her own chapter of the Coalition for the Black Trade Unionists, which advocates for the rights of Black laborers. Johnson also helped establish the African American Arts and Culture Complex in the Fillmore district in San Francisco.

 

Artists and Performers


 

A color image of a clay portrait of the performer and educator Jacques d'Amboise.

Jacques d'Amboise

Mask of Jacques d'Amboise, performer and educator.

Jacques d’Amboise was an American performer and educator who danced with the New York City Ballet from 1949 to 1984. He collaborated extensively with the esteemed choreographer George Balanchine, and appeared in the films Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Carousel. D’Amboise founded the National Dance Institute in 1976, a New York City nonprofit that brings dance to K–12 students, the majority of whom come from low-income communities.

A color image of a clay portrait of the artist John Gutmann.

John Gutmann

Mask of artist John Gutmann.

John Gutmann was a German-born artist who fled Nazi Germany for the United States. After moving to San Francisco, he became known for his evocative street photography, and his work was published in Time and The Saturday Evening Post. Gutmann founded the photography department at San Francisco State University (then College) in 1946.

A color image of a clay portrait of the artist Trude Guermonprez.

Trude Guermonprez

Mask of artist Trude Guermonprez.

Trude Guermonprez was a German American textile artist who taught at Black Mountain College, the San Francisco Art Institute, and California College of the Arts. She joined the Pond Farm artist collective, founded by Bauhaus-trained ceramicist Marguerite Wildenhain in Guerneville, California. Guermonprez is known for her abstract, hand-woven textile works.

A color image of a clay portrait of American artist Beth Van Hoesen.

Beth Van Hoesen

Mask of artist Beth Van Hoesen.

Beth Van Hoesen was an American artist known for her delicately rendered prints and drawings of animals, plants, and people. She attended Stanford University and the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied with David Park and Clyfford Still. Van Hoesen was a close friend of artist Wayne Theibaud, with whom she often shared a studio.

A color image of a clay portrait of dancer June Watanabe.

June Watanabe

Mask of dancer June Watanabe.

June Watanabe is Professor Emerita of Dance at Mills College and former director of the June Watanabe Dance Company / June Watanabe in Company. As a child, she and her family were incarcerated at Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. In 1955, at age 16, she danced for the film version of The King and I. Asawa collaborated with Watanabe on her dance piece, The Towers, in 1990. For this work Asawa created a custom mask and wire sculpture head piece to be worn during the performance.

A color image of a clay portrait of artist Gwendolyn Knight.

Gwendolyn Knight

Mask of artist Gwendolyn Knight.

Gwendolyn Knight was an artist employed by the Works Progress Administration and associated with the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. She was married to another artist, Jacob Lawrence, and the two of them taught at Black Mountain College. Her work is characterized by flattened and abstracted forms, a bright color palette, and figural compositions.

A color image of a clay portrait of artist Ruth Asawa's close friend and neighbor, Mae Lee.

Mae Lee

Mask of artist Mae Lee, Ruth Asawa's close friend and neighbor.

Mae Lee was Asawa’s neighbor, one of her primary assistants, and a close friend. Among many projects, Lee assisted with the execution of Andrea, a public fountain commission by Asawa located in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square.

A color image of a clay portrait of muscian Billy Taylor.

Billy Taylor

Mask of muscian Billy Taylor.

Billy Taylor was a pianist, composer, professor, and prominent jazz advocate on television and radio. He was an on-air correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning and a frequent speaker on National Public Radio about jazz and music history. In 1989 he co-founded the Jazz Foundation of America. Taylor also taught jazz courses at many colleges and universities, including Howard University and the Manhattan School of Music.

A color image of a clay portrait of performer, playwright, professor and MacArthur fellow Anna Deavere Smith.

Anna Deavere Smith

Mask of performer, playwright, professor and MacArthur fellow Anna Deavere Smith.

Anna Deavere Smith is an American performer, playwright, professor, MacArthur fellow, and founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University. She is recognized for her recurring roles on the television series The West Wing and Nurse Jackie and has appeared in several films, including Philadelphia. Smith was the Ann O’Day Maples Professor of the Arts at Stanford University from 1990 to 2000.

 

Behind the Scenes


 

Explore all the Masks


 

Explore the 233 masks of Ruth Asawa's Untitled (LC.012, Wall of Masks)

Ruth Asawa's Untitled (LC.012, Wall of Masks)

Explore the 233 masks of Ruth Asawa's Untitled (LC.012, Wall of Masks).

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