Ruth Asawa, Black Mountain College, and Mexico

Hazel Larsen Archer, Ruth Asawa at Black Mountain College, c. 1948. Courtesy of the Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer.

The exhibition Black Mountain College and Mexico uncovers and examines links between these two places across borders and time. The lives and work of many significant BMC figures were affected by their experiences in Mexico. In this guest blog post by Olivia Crosbie, summer 2023 intern, we are featuring Ruth Asawa as one BMC student profoundly influenced by her travels to Mexico. Read more to learn about Asawa’s Untitled (S.373, Hanging Six–Lobed Multilayered Interlocking Continuous Form within a Form) sculpture and its technical roots in Mexican craft.

I was introduced to Ruth Asawa and Black Mountain College through her first European exhibition at Modern Art Oxford in 2022, which displayed her sculpture, as well as various pattern-like paintings and casual sketches of her children. I found her work striking, particularly after reading her story and noticing the influences she drew from a dark period of American history. Her connection to Mexican craftsmanship further emphasizes the revolutionary nature of teaching at Black Mountain College, which blurred the lines between cultures, traditions, and conventions.

Ruth Asawa’s time at Black Mountain College proved to be an integral part of shaping her work and identity as an artist. Between 1946 and 1949, Asawa flourished under the teachings of Josef Albers and the interdisciplinary curriculum at Black Mountain College, despite social tension in the southern United States following World World II. Asawa experienced significant hardships during the war because of her identity as a Japanese-American. Black Mountain College provided her an outlet for creative expression following her release from the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. Through the encouragement of her professors and peers, Asawa drew inspiration from traditional craft techniques in Mexico to develop her intricate wire sculptures. Asawa’s legacy continues to influence the artistic landscape across the United States through her decades of work and persistence in advocating for the importance of artistic education.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled S.390 (Hanging Tied Wire, Center Tied, Two Directional, Multi Branched), circa 1960. Copper wire. Collection of Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center. Gift of Rita Newman. Artwork © Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Ruth Asawa’s passion for art emerged at a young age at her family’s farm in Norwalk, California. One of seven children, Ruth’s childhood was molded by the hard work of her parents to assimilate in American culture, following their immigration from Japan. A young Ruth was notably seen drawing circular patterns with a stick in the dirt as her mother and father worked tirelessly on their crops. From a very young age, she displayed her potential and her desire to grow beyond the domestic life her parents had imagined for their children. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, rising levels of anti-Asian sentiment permeated throughout the United States. In 1942, the Asawa family was sent to an internment camp in Arkansas. Shortly after, Ruth’s father was arrested by the FBI and separated from the family. The family did not know of his location for six years, and presumed he was dead. The War Relocation Camps provided education to the internees, which gave Ruth the outlet to draw and learn from other artists in the camp while in school. Asawa’s imprisonment influenced her use of household materials in her sculpture, as she often was limited to whatever was at her disposal. 

Following the end of the war in 1945, interned Japanese Americans and immigrants were released from War Relocation Camps. Ruth Asawa, now age 19, briefly pursued a career as a teacher in Milwaukee, but was unable to secure a position due to discrimination. She then changed course and headed for Mexico, where she attended an art class at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. Simultaneously, Asawa observed the Mexican custom of basket weaving amongst local artists and artisans, who used them to carry eggs and other household items. The process of basket weaving was often considered a domestic task commonly practiced by women, which likely reminded Asawa of her childhood spent on the family farm. As Asawa developed her unique style of wire weaving, she referenced the intricate Mexican techniques of looping a single strand of material to create an interlocking basket, eventually creating her iconic rounded forms. 

Black Mountain College and Mexico installation photo by Michael Oppenheim. Top row, center object: Wire basket, ca. 1980s. Courtesy of Eric Baden, curator and project director of Black Mountain College and Mexico.

 Ruth Asawa enrolled at Black Mountain College in 1946, following her first trip to Mexico. Asawa thrived under renowned BMC faculty Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller. Albers encouraged her to experiment with everyday materials in her work, and imparted a holistic approach to the liberal arts, believing that an emphasis on visual creativity in education could be useful to the future innovator. Black Mountain College provided limitless opportunities to their students, and encouraged the creative pursuit of knowledge above all else. In my view, this philosophy was likely freeing to an artist like Asawa who spent her teenage years in an internment camp. In the biography Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa, author Marilyn Chase declares: “Ruth was quietly gaining a reputation among faculty and fellow students as a camp survivor, a serious artist, and an Albers protégé” (pg. 48-49). Later in life, Asawa reminisces on her time at Black Mountain College as a truly pivotal moment in shaping her artistic vision.

Chase also details a second trip Asawa took to Mexico during her time at Black Mountain College. Amongst other young English-speaking women, Awasa volunteered to teach art classes to the children in the small town of Toluca. In exchange for her services, one of the school teachers taught her a local method of weaving, creating baskets used for practical tasks such as carrying produce. Upon her return to Black Mountain, Asawa would begin to produce wire sculptures made by transforming long strands of wire into abstract round vessels. Ruth Asawa’s sculptures provide a timeless reminder of the power of blended cultural traditions. 

First: Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.373, Hanging Six-Lobed, Multilayered Interlocking Continuous Form within a Form), 1954. Enameled and oxidized copper wire, 87 x 8 x 8 inches (220.98 x 20.32 x 20.32 cm). Collection of Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center. Gift of Lorna Blaine Halper. Artwork © Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS). Pictured with Jorge Méndez Blake’s Things I’ve learned about democracy, 2023. Installation photo by Michael Oppenheim. Second: Installation photo by BMCM+AC staff.


Asawa’s Untitled (S.373, Hanging Six-Lobed, Multilayered Interlocking Continuous Form within a Form), which hangs prominently in the gallery of the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, is a captivating example of the biomorphic forms that Asawa pioneered. Upon close inspection, visitors can encounter the intricacy of the weaving technique, imagining the tedious process of looping using copper, iron, or steel wire. Asawa’s wire sculpture transcends the traditional practicality of basket weaving, and instead employs the technique to create this seamless continuous form. The rounded nature of the sculpture provides a visual comparison to the beaded structures of oil mixing with water. The harsh and unyielding qualities of the copper and steel wire initiate a significant contrast when viewing the sculpture in all its serenity. The serene, natural inspirations in Asawa’s work reflect the varied landscapes of Black Mountain. Under the teachings of BMC professors Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller, Asawa was encouraged to utilize every-day materials to shape her designs, similar to the craftsmanship of Mexican basket weavers. Asawa commented about the nature of her materials: “I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.”

As Asawa’s career progressed, she took an interest in the educational landscape of the United States and advocated tirelessly for the importance of a holistic teaching and government funding for the arts. Despite the closing of Black Mountain College in 1957, the remarkable effect it had on the career of one of its most notable alumni remains palpable. Ruth’s legacy is a product of her education, internment, and persistent dedication for a better world for her children through the practice of art.

Further reading:

Chase, Marilyn. Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa. Chronicle Books, 2020.

Asawa, Ruth, and Stephen Dobbs. “Community and Commitment: An Interview with Ruth Asawa.” Art Education 34, no. 5 (1981): 14–17.

“Black Mountain College: A Pioneer in Southern Racial Integration.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 54 (2006): 46–48.