Ruth Asawa, who died Monday at age 87, was a distinguished San Francisco artist, nationally known sculptor and humanitarian who overcame great personal hardship to serve the community and nourish young talent.
Her journey as an artist began as a child in Southern California when she traced curved lines in the sand, pursuing "strange and wondrous shapes."
She spent a lifetime creating such shapes, many in wires, and often wore bandages as she was sculpting to shield her hands from cuts — mostly without success.
In collaborator and friend Bob Toy's documentary "Ruth Asawa: Roots of an Artist," Asawa described her unique sculptures, saying, "I've always been interested in the gaps — the form goes around, form within form, like a Möbius strip inside and outside at the same time." Beginning with freely branching forms from nature, Asawa refined her pieces into even more abstract and striking creations.
The daughter of immigrant farmers, Asawa made art history when one of her hanging wire sculptures was sold by Christie's auction house in New York for $1.4 million this year.
Though most famous for those sculptures, Asawa is known in The City as the "fountain lady." Her work includes the "Andrea" mermaid fountain in Ghirardelli Square; the Hyatt on Union Square fountain; and "Aurora," the origami-inspired fountain on the waterfront.
The fountain at the Hyatt has been the subject of a debate about whether it should be removed as part of a proposed Apple store project. The City, responding to strong protests, is resisting the plan.
At age 16, Asawa and her family were among 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast who were interned during World War II. Although deprived of freedom and profoundly wronged, Asawa later reflected on the experience.
"I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one," she said. "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."
Among her many contributions to the community is Ruth's Table, a group serving seniors living independently at Bethany Center in the Mission district. They even meet over Asawa's own kitchen table that she donated to the group.
In 1982, Asawa founded an arts school, which is today the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, a San Francisco Unified School District institution in the vanguard of retaining arts programs.
Mayor Ed Lee released a statement Tuesday on Asawa's death, saying, "Her passion for educating San Francisco's youth and families made her a true champion of the arts for our entire city. ... Ruth's legacy will continue to inspire generations to come."
Asawa and her architect husband, Albert Lanier, who died in 2008, raised six children. She is survived by five of them — Xavier, Aiko, Hudson, Paul and Addie.