ruth-asawaRuth Asawa, a San Francisco-based Japanese-American artist whose work can be found throughout the Bay Area, passed away Monday night. She was 87.

San Francisco residents and visitors can view many pieces of Asawa’s public art, including fountains at Ghirardelli Square and outside the Grant Hyatt near Union Square.

In San Jose, the Japanese American Internment Memorial Sculpture is on display at the Federal Building in downtown. The 1994 sculpture is one of her several public commissions.

She also specialized in wire sculptures and paintings, and has her work available for viewing at M.H. de Young Museum, among other galleries and museums.

The artist was born in 1926 in Southern California, the fourth of seven children to her Japanese-born parents who immigrated to the U.S. and became farmers.

In 1942 she was sent to an internment camp with her family along with more than 110,000 other Japanese-Americans during World War II. They lived for six months at Santa Anita Race Track before they were moved to a camp in Arkansas.

Her father had been arrested by the FBI and she did not see him again until 1948.

Asawa helped found the School of the Arts, a public high school in San Francisco, as an arts program for students in 1982. In 2010 the school was renamed after her.

The campus relocated to the former McAteer High School location at 555 Portola Drive in 2002.

Asawa had championed to move the school to 135 Van Ness Ave. to be part of the burgeoning arts scene in Civic Center.

She served as commissioner on the city’s Arts Commission in the 1960s and into the 1970s and a trustee at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Tom DeCaigny, director of cultural affairs at the San Francisco Arts Commission, said Asawa was “the guiding light for art education.”

He said she leaves behind a lasting legacy and was a “critical leader in the community.”

“In San Francisco there’s often a lot of debate and contention” about major artists, but with Asawa, she “was one of the most universally loved and admired artists throughout the city,” DeCaigny said.

According to her personal website, she earned three honorary degrees, including at San Francisco State University in 1998.

She studied Black Mountain College in North Carolina where she met her future husband, Albert Lanier. They married in 1949 and moved to San Francisco.

They had six children and lived together in San Francisco.

In 1985, Asawa was diagnosed with lupus and never fully recovered.

According to her website, in 2002 she limited her public appearances because of her declining health.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee commented on the passing of Asawa and recognized her contributions to the city landscape.

“From intricate wire sculptures to her remarkable public art pieces and memorable paintings and drawings, Ruth’s legacy will continue to inspire generations to come,” the mayor said in a statement.

State Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, posted on his Twitter account this afternoon, “She has left her mark on our city and country!”

Since her death, many comments have been posted on social media to remember the artist.

On Facebook, Shannon Day wrote, “I am changed as an artist and as an educator by her passionate commitment to children and to the arts. Thank you Ruth for your vision and your courage, for your talent and your heart.”

Johnny Lucania posted on Facebook this afternoon, “It was wonderful growing up in Noe Valley with Ruth and Al as neighbors. Seeing Ruth’s works displayed locally (as a child I loved the fountain in Ghirardelli Square) gave all of us neighborhood kids a sense of pride that, ‘Hey, I know her!’”

More about Asawa and her artwork is available at

Sasha Lekach, Bay City News

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