The Japanese-American Sculptor Who, Despite Persecution, Made Her Mark


By April of that year, with Umakichi already imprisoned in New Mexico, Asawa, her mother and her siblings — with the exception of a younger sister who had been living in Japan on an extended visit, where she would remain throughout the war — had been told to pack up their lives and join the thousands of other Japanese-Americans at Santa Anita, one of two local detention centers, where they were assigned to wait until they received a permanent camp location further inland. There, they lived in the stables of the converted racetrack. “Hair from the horse[’s] mane & tail were stuck between cracks of the walls. The heat of the summer accentuated the odor of recent tenants,” remembered Asawa. Family units were broken up. Privacy was limited. While incarceration was an undignified experience, it also, paradoxically, set in motion Asawa’s career. She had more free time in Santa Anita than on the family farm and was introduced to three Walt Disney artists — Tom Okamoto, Chris Ishii and James Tanaka — who had begun teaching art. With the paper, charcoal and ink donated by the same men who had worked on “Snow White” and “Pinocchio,” Asawa began to take her own talent more seriously.

Credit…Courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner

After five months, the Asawa family was ordered to pack up again, heading now to the bayous of Arkansas and the Rohwer War Relocation Center, where Asawa would live for the next year. She recalled of the journey there: “The Louisiana swamps were just as I imagined them to be … enchanting, beautiful, and weird.” Cypress trees grew in the bayous and creeks snaked through large swaths of farmland, which were worked by sharecroppers, whose own poverty was often bleaker than that of those in the camps. In freshly erected barracks where the soil turned to black muck when it rained, Asawa and her family were imprisoned with over 8,000 other Japanese-Americans. (I visited Rohwer earlier this year and I was shocked by its flatness and disappointed that almost nothing remained of the camps except a smokestack, a gymnasium that now sat on private property and the beautiful cement tombstones that Japanese-American prisoners made for themselves.)

Like nearly everyone around them, the Asawas had lost their way of life and their security for the future. Still, there were small moments of relief: The gardens the families planted thrived in the Arkansas soil. They flew paper kites against the open blue sky. Asawa’s mother got her hair permed for the first time and socialized with the other women at the camp, activities her hardscrabble farm life never allowed.

In the spring of 1943, Asawa became eligible for early release as a high-school graduate (on the condition that she attend a college in the country’s interior, which was considered less of a national security threat, and that she find a financial sponsor). One of her teachers handed her a catalog for the Art Institute of Chicago. She couldn’t afford it and instead chose the Milwaukee State Teachers College, where a semester only cost $25 (roughly $360 today). Leaving behind her mother and her younger siblings, Asawa said goodbye to Rohwer and took a train north.

FREE FROM THE prison of Rohwer, Asawa found Milwaukee was still a disappointment in many respects. Her tuition was paid for by a Quaker scholarship, but she earned her living expenses working as a live-in maid for a local family. During her third year of study, with the modest aim of becoming an art teacher, Asawa was told her race was a liability — as a Japanese-American, she would not be able to graduate with a teaching certificate, and without that, she would be unable to be hired as a teacher. Two of her friends from Milwaukee, both artists, Ray Johnson and Elaine Schmitt, were planning to attend a summer course at a school called Black Mountain College and urged Asawa to join them. After first arriving for a summer session, Asawa finally enrolled as a full-time student in the fall of 1946.

Credit…Hazel Larsen Archer. © Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer, by permission of Erika Archer-Zarow. From “Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa,” by Marilyn Chase, published by Chronicle Books, 2020

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