Ruth Asawa: Each Loop, A Lifetime

Little farmgirl, toes employed, styli, draws in sand, sitting on the back of a horse-drawn leveler.

Lines that move, choreography, swirl and swoop upon quadrangular planes of sunlight-shadow into conjectural sculpture.

Lost in daydream, little farmgirl performs the art of over and over, the motion. She doesn’t want for anything or to be an artist. She just is, artist.

When farmgirl’s an old woman, they’ll ask for origin stories. She’ll relay the memory. Will feel as it always feels looking backwards, like prearrangement.

Sculpture is like farming. If you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done, she’ll say.

What is farming if it is not a lifetime of seasons performed in hands? Quintessentially, repetition, tedium: chain of homogenous tasks.

She will say: Planting five acres of onions during Christmasharvesting in July all these things…picking the beans…picking tomatoes.

Another story of origin: little farm girl unwinds wires. Of fine brass and steel, holding veggie labels to their crates of veggies. Then rewinds them into forms: braids, twists, bracelets, rings, and figures.

Where did the labels walk off to? asks her father, loading the truck for the market.

Toluca, Mexico: young art student feels again, wire. A woven basket holding eggs. The universe has gifted a transforming vision. The kind all artists hope for.

An ordinary object, self-effacing, young art student reconceptualizes: art.

Because that’s what artists do: evolve the ordinary.

Local craftsman teaches her the looping technique. Young art student practices the fine motor skill an entire lifetime.

Says she: With art, your motor sense should be developed at full capacity.

My stepmom Norma made a quilt each winter. Like her mother Bernadine, her grandmother, Josephine. Which was stretched on a wooden frame that spanned the living room. A block shape inside its block hole.

Norma pushed the furniture against the walls. Two recliners, hers and Dad’s, couch and standing ashtray. The room transformed into a technicolor dream field.

My sister and I camped underneath; Norma stitched away the hours.

Eight years old: she taught us the rocking stitch, back stitch, running stitch, chain, French knot, lazy daisy, stem.

Bernadine’s wedding quilt, made by Josephine, 1955. Image courtesy Katrina Knebel.

Picture this: three’s company seated around the quilting table, hunchbacked, biting tongues. Rocking with metal thimble the needle into three millimeter-length pleats of fabric. Again. Again.

And this: dashed white lines running across fabric; the television in the corner, playing sitcom reruns.

Says the artist: I like the idea of stopping the moment in time. And it’s going to disappear.

1950 to 1959. The artist has six children (imagine). The artist labors on her art.

Her artist friends, the Albers, Imogene Cunningham, tsk-tsk: How are you going to be an artist having so many children?

But her sprawling litter does not divert her making-art. She redefines the terms: artist, mother.

Says her daughter: We always saw her making art. I never thought of…as a separate activity. We didn’t have to be quiet so she could concentrate.

Imogen Cunningham, Ruth Asawa, Sculptor, and her children, 1955. Image via the Imogen Cunningham Trust.

A 1957 photograph, taken by Cunningham. The artist is seated at the floor, bending over wire sculpture, fenced by children.

One squats on the coffee table, reads a book. Another taps a stick on the floor. The one-year-old drinks their bottle. Like mother like children, busy.

Often, the artist takes her children to the park and draws the plane trees. Her children do what children do. Bicker, romp, pilfer cones, cicada shells (nature booty).

Some days, they lose themselves inside daydreams, staring up at the under of a tree.

Says the artist: There is no separation between studying, performing the daily chores of living, and creating one’s own work.

Installation view of “Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work” at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. Image via The Pulitzer Arts Foundation

September, 2018. Ruth Asawa’s sculptures hang in the Pulitzer.

Or they’ve sprouted from the ceiling.

So actual.


It’s hard to imagine they weren’t ever here. Or in a few months, they’ll be gone. My sister’s in town. So we go, to see the exhibit. We’re astonished.

We meander cat-like, tails up, between cellular spaces of air and witch hats and star-shaped wall-hangings and doodly lines.

My sister is an artist-architect. She lives in a house-museum, her own design. Once she and her house were in a magazine.

My sister makes textile art and quilts. A baby quilt for her first-born daughter: a six-block assemblage of Charlie Harperesque animals.

Another quilt looks like a Bridget Riley painting. Is featured in an exhibit.

Quilt by Angela Flicker, the author’s sister. Image courtesy of Katrina Knebel.

Sunday, my sister sews or builds on the laptop. Her children build a Lego village. Or bead or bake or paint or make a Christmas card for their cousins.

My daughter sends back a drawing of the Pancake Queen.

My sister and I, at the museum’s resource library: stories of the artist’s life, origins, Cunningham’s pictures.

Here is one picture: artist lying under sculpture, torso inches from the ground, looping wire with fingers, doing art/ performing yoga.

Do her muscles ache? Her neck and back? How long does she labor?

Is she indefatigable, self-aware? Is it clear to her, the outcome? Does she feel the congruence?

More pictures: children in the art space. Children invasion, so familiar. Like mothers quilting; mothers knitting afghans, baby blankets; sewing three matching dresses for Easter. The lull of fingers; a gaggle of children.

Once my mom pumped the machine, made it whirr. I bit a pinky nail. Watched the fabric: going in, coming out. She said, Get those fingers out your mouth. She didn’t miss a beat.

Says the critics: These are ‘domestic’ sculptures in a feminine handiwork mode.

What is this line between mother, artist? Mother, child? Does it wobble? Can it be stitched? Into diaphanous, organic architecture? A seahorse, a fish house?

Is it remarkable, resisting taxonomy? Contemporary influence? Hanging in your own art space?

Here may be an answer: An artist is not special. An artist is an ordinary person.

It’s what convinced us.

Ruth Asawa “Forever” Stamps, released by the United States Postal Service in 2020.

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