In 1942 in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government ordered Japanese Americans living along the West Coast into war relocation camps. At the time, the Asawa family lived in Norwalk, California, and they were sent to the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas. Despite this very challenging experience, one of the family’s daughters, Ruth, developed a passion for art, and she spent her time studying drawing and painting with professional artists who were also interned. After high school she wanted to attend college to become an art teacher, but she was told that she wouldn’t be able to find a teaching position because of lingering ill-will against the Japanese. It was then that she decided to attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where artist Joseph Albers (1888–1976) was one of her progressive art instructors.
In the early 1950s, Asawa changed longstanding ideas about sculpture by crocheting wire into beautiful, spherical shapes suspended in space. She created these daring sculptural forms at her home while caring for her six young children, and they earned her critical acclaim and a fellowship to the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles where she created a series of nature-based prints in 1965. These lithographs reveal some of the same concerns she explored in her sculpture, such as balancing a subject’s positive space with its negative space.
Throughout her life, Asawa has continued to reflect positively on the challenges of her life, and she has been a tireless advocate for arts education since the 1960s. Reflecting on her experiences, she said, “I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one. Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the Internment, and I like who I am.” Think of your students as you consider Asawa’s words. How might she inspire them?