‘art will make people better, more skillful in thinking and improving any business or profession one enters into. It makes a person broader. so declared Ruth Asawa in 1976. Born 50 years ago, she is an American artist hailed for her cocoon-like sculptures made of interwoven silver wire hanging from the ceiling and evoking womb-like shapes. When lit, she creates shadows and enhances unexpected shapes from every angle.
Asawa is also remembered as one of the most prominent educators in the San Francisco area, having founded the city’s first public art high school in 1982 – renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco Art School in 2010. He was raised on a California farm by Japanese immigrant parents when she was A teenager, Asawa became one of the 100,000 Americans placed in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. At the camp, one of her teachers was Walt Disney animator Tom Okamoto, who undoubtedly served as an influence for her later meticulous drawings.
Upon her release, Asawa trained at Milwaukee State Teachers College for three years, but anti-Japanese racism prevented her from getting a job. In 1946, she entered Black Mountain College in North Carolina, one of the most revolutionary art colleges of the 20th century. Black Mountain adopted Bauhaus principles, introducing painting, philosophy, mathematics and music and aiming to eliminate hierarchy between students and teachers.
Emma Ridgway, curator of last year’s Asawa exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, says the school was all about creating “active citizens of democracy with faculty that included Josef and Annie Albers, John Cage and Buckminster Fuller – even Albert Einstein was on the board -” By “making people and working with them”.
After excelling in college and motivated by her approach to art and life, Asawa moved to San Francisco and set up her practice at home, all while raising her six children. But after witnessing the lack of art education for children in the city, in 1968 she co-founded the Alvarado School of Art Workshop.
Led by parents, teachers, and professional artists, the workshop encouraged children to use “baker’s clay” (a mixture of flour, salt, and water): an inexpensive material that can be cooked and made into small ceramic sculptures. Asawa once said: “I am primarily interested in enabling people to become as independent and self-sufficient as possible. This has nothing to do with art, except that through the arts you can learn many, many skills.”
I was thinking about this commitment to non-hierarchical education, to molding young people into independent citizens, in light of Rishi Sunak’s speech last week, which suggested it should be compulsory for all UK students up to the age of 18 to study mathematics.
While arithmetic is a major asset for young people, it should not be considered above other subjects. Sunak’s vision of education must want to exploit people’s strengths. Not every young person succeeds in maths – for example 6% of the UK population suffers from dyscalculia.
In his speech, Sunak said that “since data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before.” However, the data does not support everything. To be balanced and fair, we must have diverse thinkers. Not giving children the opportunity to explore different topics is letting them down.
This new focus on maths also comes in light of deep cuts to arts education, despite the UK’s creative industries worth more than £100 billion to the economy. In 2021, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, cut funding for art and design courses by 50% across higher education institutions in England, focusing money on stem subjects – STEM.
“All learning should enable young people to create meaning through self-expression, giving them the skills and understanding to thrive personally, economically, and in our community,” says Lizzie Crumb and Sam Cairns of Cairns Crumb, an independent arts and education consulting firm.
Never has this been a more urgent time to support arts education and the arts in order to create independent citizens. As Asawa emphasized: “Through the arts, you can learn many skills that you cannot learn through abstract problem-solving.”