Arts Voyager, Generations: Ruth Asawa — from Darkness into Light

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Ruth Asawa; Nasturtiums; 1965; Lithograph; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; 1965.214. Image courtesy  Carter Museum. Copyright Ruth Asawa 1965.

(Originally published on August 14, 2012. Ruth Asawa is the reason I write about art. The Amon Carter exhibition, Ruth Asawa: Organic Meditations, was taken from Ruth’s work as a fellow with John Wayne (not that one)’s 1965 Tamarind Workshop in Los Angeles, which matched artists with master printmakers. This piece is dedicated to  Annette, Eva, Sharon, and all the other parents of the Alvarado Arts Program.)

PERRYVILLE, Maryland — Lafayette, when he traversed it on General Washington’s orders, called the mighty Susquehanna River his “rubicom.” This morning as the Sun rises over this vast blue reflecting pool right near where it opens up into the Chesapeake Bay, and I reflect on how a kid from San Francisco’s Noe Valley got here, at the end of a three-month arts voyage and personal journey that now finds me in a house where Lafayette ‘lui-meme’ slept, owned by another kid from SF (neighboring Eureka Valley) and her husband, I find myself thinking of Ruth Asawa, who from a childhood interned in a prison camp by her own country (is this what Lafayette and Washington fought for?) went on to turn thousands of kids like me and my pal on to art. I think of art and I think of humility, I think of museums and I think of access.

In Chicago, one of my first stops on this journey, the Art Institute is vaunting an inundation of work by Roy Lichtenstein, who lifted from the comic books we used to buy for 12 cents in San Francisco to create “pop art” today worth millions of dollars. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art now charges adults $25 to see a high-minded exhibition on the Century of the Child. (I look at the MOMA calendar, and most exhibitions seem to be high on conceptual fog, low on actual art density. I can’t figure out what they’re about; how can the wordsmith decipher the art if he can’t even fathom the curator’s description?) In Fort Worth, though, where I’ve lived for the last year, because a newspaper man named Amon Carter (whose paper, the Star-Telegram, has long-since had the blood drained from it by another newspaper serial-killer, McClatchy) followed the recommendation of a cowboy philosopher named Will Rogers and bought a couple of paintings by a cowboy artist named Charlie Russell which became the seedlings for the museum that now bears Carter’s name, anyone can now wander into that museum for free any day of the week — because Carter declared he wanted children to have the advantages he never had growing up — and see, among other marvels, 18 light-generated and life-generating lithographs by Ruth Asawa who didn’t just talk about the century of children, but who made it for them, in part by founding — with the mothers of me and my pal, among others — the Alvarado Arts Program (itself seedling for the city’s eventual School of the Arts) in 1968, three years after she completed the Tamarind Printer’s Workshop where she made these works. With us at Alvarado in those heady days, Ruth made a mosaic; I got to do the school bus. It’s still there now in the school-yard, 45 years after Ruth launched me on this magic bus.

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