Contours in the Air

She is very beautiful, quiet, energetic, and unaffected and believes almost religiously in work. She is five feet two inches tall and has very black hair. Besides her painting and design work she likes to grow things and cultivates mad little gardens at school and she had rather dance than eat.

— letter written by Albert Lanier introducing Ruth to her future in-laws, 1948

Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier were extraordinarily talented, young, and beautiful artists who met while studying together at the renown Black Mountain College in 1946. Through the guidance and instruction of major art figures such as painter Josef Albers, dancer Merce Cunningham, and architect Buckminister Fuller, Black Mountain College gave the two lovers the self-confidence and courage to pursue careers as artists and to brave the untested waters of a mixed race marriage, just a few years following the end of WWII, which had cast a perceptible pallor over the entire population Japanese Americans like Ruth Asawa and her family. 

To understand her origins as an artist and her motivation to continue to create things of "unrefined beauty" well into her 80s, one must observe Ruth Asawa's early experiences as a child of immigrant farmers, with a strict and conservative Japanese culture cocooning her, as did the subsequent years spent in an American interment camp through the duration of the war. It is not typical for artists to begin their careers in incarceration, but despite the hardship, Asawa not only absorbed lessons from her time in camp (she first learned weaving as a volunteer camoflage net maker, and picked up the sumi brush during art classes in camp), she flourished. She was only 16 when she and her family were forcibly removed from their homes in Norwalk, California, and interned along with 120,000 other people of Japanese ancestry who lived along the West Coast. For many, the upheaval of losing everything, most importantly their right to freedom and a private, family life, caused irreprable harm. For Asawa, the internment was the first step on a journey to a world of art that profoundly changed who she was and what she thought was possible in life.

(photos by Laurence Cuneo and Hazel Larsen from

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