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Ruth Asawa’s clay masks find a second home in the Cantor | Pro Club Bd

For decades, hundreds of masks created by sculptor Ruth Asawa for her friends and family hung on the garden wall of the artist’s home in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. The majority of this collection is now on display at the Cantor Arts Center and is open to the public for the first time. This significant acquisition and installation entitled The faces of Ruth Asawais part of Stanford’s Asian American Art Initiative.

The masks’ journey from San Francisco to the Cantor began in 2019 when Asawa’s daughter and son-in-law, Aiko and Laurence Cuneo, came to the Cantor to oversee the installation of one of Asawa’s abstract wire sculptures. Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, the Cantor’s Associate Curator of American Art, had selected the piece for rotation in the exhibition The medium is the message: art since 1950. During the installation, Aiko asked Alexander if she knew about the masks.

“Although I have long been an admirer of Asawa’s work,” Alexander said, “I had never heard of these masks or their ceramic work. When Aiko and Laurence showed me some pictures, I was amazed. These masks, cast from the faces of friends and family, completely expanded my understanding of Asawa’s practice. It underlined to me the importance of the community’s engagement with their world and their artistic creation.”

In the months that followed, Alexander continued the conversation about the masks with the estate of Ruth Asawa, who died in 2013. For a long time, the masks were regarded more as ephemera than as an official part of the work of the artist, who is known primarily for her modern abstract wire sculpture. But it was becoming increasingly clear that these objects were important works that contributed to a broader, more complete understanding of Asawa’s life.

During this time, Cantor prepared the founding of the Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI), which has since transformed Stanford into the premier academic and curatorial center for Asian American art. As part of the initiative, the cantor is attempting to build the preeminent collection of Asian-American art at a university art museum. Asawa’s 233 ceramic masks had found their permanent home.

Franz Kunst, Processing Archivist in the Special Collections division of Stanford Libraries, which houses Asawa’s public-access digital archive, said: “Of course there is a great deal in her papers about her mask making, but the archive also shows how wide her creative network was and how many different people she made life masks with.”

The cantor acquired Untitled (LC.012, Wall of Masks) in 2020, and they were on long-term visit at the museum on July 6th. The installation, curated by Alexander, features the masks of Asawa and three vessels made by the artist’s son, Paul Lanier Clay mixed with the ashes of Asawa; her husband Albert; and her late son Adam. After Asawa’s death, at her request, Lanier threw a number of vessels containing this material, one for each remaining sibling. The three included in The faces of Ruth Asawa were borrowed from the family to further demonstrate Asawa’s close connection to clay.

The faces of Ruth Asawa is a unique installation,” said Alexander. “If museum-goers are familiar with her, they’re probably familiar with her hanging biomorphic wire sculptures. This installation offers a glimpse into a different side of Asawa’s practice and a clear look at the Bay Area artistic community in the last half of the 20th century.”

The Road to San Francisco

Ruth Asawa was born in Norwalk, California, in 1926 and spent the early days of her life with her six siblings on her parents’ farm. During World War II, her family was interned under Executive Order 9066. After graduating from high school in a detention center, she attended Milwaukee State Teachers College but was unable to graduate due to her Japanese heritage. From 1946 to 1949 she attended the historically significant art school Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There she studied with Josef Albers and met her future husband Albert Lanier. Asawa and Lanier moved to San Francisco, where they would remain for the rest of their lives.

Asawa continued her sculpting practice in San Francisco while also promoting the arts. She served on the San Francisco Arts Commission, helped establish the San Francisco School of the Arts (now the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts), and was the first female artist to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

“She was a creative spirit in the highest degree, but not only that, she never forgot the other elements that make life worth living: family, community and the preservation of history,” Alexander said. “I hope this installation effectively captures her spirit and inspires others as it inspired me.”

The Asian-American Art Initiative will be exhibited

The Asian American Art Initiative, based at the Cantor, is dedicated to the study of artists and makers of Asian descent. Founded and co-directed by Alexander and Marci Kwon, Assistant Professors of Art and Art History at the School of Humanities and Sciences, AAAI encompasses a range of activities including collecting and exhibiting the work of Asian American and Asian Diaspora artists; preservation of archival materials; support for basic and higher education; and promoting community participation through public programs.

“I can’t think of a more appropriate artist to kick off our robust season of AAAI exhibitions and activities this fall than Ruth Asawa,” said Veronica Roberts, the Cantor’s newly appointed John and Jill Freidenrich director. “She is deeply admired in the Bay Area as an artist and for the impact she has had as an advocate for art education. As recognition of her importance grows around the world, we are honored to help expand public awareness of her legacy.”

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