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Requiem for a Badass: Ten Things You Might Not Know About the Late, Legendary Ruth Asawa

The famed local sculptor leaves a legacy even bigger than her artwork.

So Ruth Asawa—sculptor, celebrated member of San Francisco's art scene, ardent education supporter, all-around awesome lady—died on Monday. You probably know her from her public scuptures, which are literally all over the city, or for the recent controversy surrounding a proposal to move one of her works to build an Apple Store, but Asawa was way more than that. Behold:

1. Not only was she sent to a Japanese internment camp as a child, she had an incredibly, wonderfully, above-and-beyond-the-call-of-civility magnanimous attitude about it, later attributing much of her creative impulse to the experience. "Sometimes good comes through adversity," she once said in a statement, according to HuffPo. "I would not be who I am had it not been for the Internment, and I like who I am."

2. Though she enrolled in an arts-education program at Milwaukee State Teachers College, she was unable to find student-teacher placement because of lingering anti-Japanese sentiment, and thus didn't complete her degree. Decades later, when Asawa was an accomplished artist, the school tried to give her an honorary doctorate. She turned them down, instead asking for the undergraduate degree she never got.

3. She and her husband Albert Lanier entered into an interracial marriage long before they were widely accepted. (They also apparently lived above an onion warehouse upon moving to San Francisco, which is a strangely compelling image.)

4. She was the force behind many of the city's first—and most formative—hands-on arts-education programs, including the Alvarado Arts Workshop, which she founded in 1965 with nothing more than a $50 grant. The program now brings artists into classrooms in more than two dozen public elementary and middle schools all over the city.

5. She totally beat Alice Waters to the whole school-garden thing: Here's a photo from 1982 of some students in the garden she helped found at Alvarado Elementary. 

6. She was also instrumental in the founding of the San Francisco School of the Arts (now renamed in her honor), one of the more well-regarded public arts high schoola in the country. If you've enjoyed the work of Margaret Cho, Aisha Harris, or Sam Rockwell, you've got her to thank. 

6b. According to at least one reputable source on Twitter, Asawa used to personally maintain the grounds at the school. 

7. She was Leaning In before Sheryl invented it, having raised six (!) kids while maintaning a successful art practice.

8. Look at her living room!

9. She was a big advocate of the de Young, and of museums in general (click here for an awesome video of a septuagenarian Asawa rolling around the museum's under-construction tower in a wheelchair and a hardhat.)

10. She made a serious impact on the art world, even if it was a long time coming: Per Kenneth Baker over at the Chron, "Ms. Asawa's place in the history of modern art in California is secure, but the wider art world has been slower to acknowledge it. That changed abruptly this spring when Christie's auction house in New York presented a sensitively installed exhibition of her wire works, preceding an auction in which a particularly elegant and complex 1960s hanging sculpture by her sold for more than $1.4 million."

Ruth, you were a treasure. San Francisco will miss you.

 

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