The month of August brought us stamps showcasing an American artist, innovations, a historic Constitutional change and a way to add an extra expression to our mail. Altogether, there were 20 new stamps – sets of 10, five, four and a single.
None of the new stamps show any specific individuals, though one – artist Ruth Asawa – appears in the selvage of the pane of 20 that highlights her unique hanging wire sculptures.
A second issue – the 19th Amendment – Women Vote stamp – presents a single stamp that depicts the images of four anonymous women of different skin colors, all dressed alike and marching toward their goal of allowing votes for everyone.
A release of five stamps called Innovation lauds the advances American scientists, engineers, inventers and innovators have made in areas such as robotics and biomedicine.
Four stamps with the same design and different background colors highlighted by gold foil allow mailers to add another special expression to their mail: thank you.
All the stamps are pressure sensitive first-class domestic Forever stamps being issued at the current rate of 55 cents. None of the stamps enjoyed a formal first day ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though all four have specific first day locations so first day covers processed with first day cancellations are available.
Japanese-American artist Ruth Asawa and her family were taken from their rural California home, split up and moved into internment camps during World War II. When she was old enough for college, Asawa left the camp and went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she worked menial jobs and studied in college before being rejected as a student teacher because of her heritage. Two years of hard work ended without her teaching degree. Yet when looking back, Asawa (1926-2013), who was born in Norwalk, California, was not angry and did not regret her early life, in which she sustained the indignities of prejudice.
“If it were not for the war, I would not be who I am, and I like who I am,’’ said Asawa in her biography by journalist Marilyn Chase.
The Postal Service on August 13 issued 10 first-class Forever stamps showing the artist’s iconic wire sculpture artworks. The first day of issue city is Asawa’s longtime hometown of San Francisco, California. The stamps – two of each design – are printed on a pane of 20 with the left side selvage showing a portrait of the artist taken in 1954 by Nat Farbman for Life magazine.
The sculpture photos were taken by Laurence Cuneo and Dan Bradica for the David Zwirner gallery in New York, which controls rights to Asawa's estate. Ethel Kessler was the designer and art director.
A virtual first day ceremony was held with actor George Takei as the host and participation by Jonathan Laib, director of the David Zwirner gallery, artist Paul Lanier, Asawa’s son and Sharon Owens, from the USPS. Takei, like Asawa and her family, was interned in a camp during World War II. He is a trustee and chair emeritus of the board of trustees and founding member of the Japanese American National Museum.
Owens, Vice President of Pricing and Costing for the USPS, referred to Asawa as “one of the greatest American artists of the past century.” The artist is also remembered as a teacher and strong proponent of art education and public art.
In a recent podcast interview, Chase told Bullseye host Jesse Thorn, “It was a shock to read her writings (and learn of) her particular gift of resilience and power to transcend the abuse that she and her family and her community had received at the hands of the U.S. government.”
Chase, author of Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa, said it was “astonishing” that Asawa not only emerged from it “intact psychologically and healthy,” but also emerged with her sense of public service intact.
The mermaid fountain, formerly known as “Andrea” (1966) at Ghirardelli Square, in San Francisco, California. Photo courtesy of Charlene Stage.
Not only are Asawa’s intricate hanging wire sculptures found in some of the world’s premiere collections, such as the Guggenheim and Whitney museums, but she was a strong and active proponent of public art. Several of her outdoor sculptures – such as the mermaid fountain in Ghirardelli Square and an origami-inspired sculpture on the waterfront – are found in San Francisco, where Asawa was known as the “fountain lady.” She was the driving force behind the creation of the San Francisco School for the Arts, renamed in 2010 the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts.
Thorn, host of the podcast, said he attended the school as a teenager. He said he knew Asawa was a famous artist but knew her better as the woman who would show up at “our sad and dopey campus” and work in the gardens. “She was there every day with her hands in the dirt,” said Thorn.
“She felt gardening was very empowering and gave students a sense of self-worth,” Chase said. “You probably would never find an artist more humble ... more philanthropic … or more dedicated, not just to the ideal of public service but the sweat work of public service.”
Asawa always remembered those who inspired her artistic creativity, Chase said, among them an art teacher and English teacher at her internment school and three women she met there who had worked at Disney Studios as animators before their internment. Chase said Asawa also credited a Quaker health mission trip to Mexico (Asawa taught art to village youngsters) where she observed craftsmen who looped wire to make open-top baskets to transport eggs and produce to market.
“They taught her this technique of simply looping wire together and she began by winding wire around a dowel,” Chase said. “From there she began to make this kind of chain or layer of loops.”
When Asawa was rejected from student teaching friends convinced her to join them at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. The college, founded in 1933, was developed by teachers from other schools as an alternative school for the arts. Among its faculty were founder John Andrew Rice; Josef and Anni Albers, who had fled Nazi Germany; eventually, engineer Buckminster Fuller; artist Willem de Kooning; musician John Cage. Asawa said she was especially influence by dance class with choreographer Merce Cunningham and art classes with Josef Albers and Ilya Bolotowsky.
You probably would never find an artist more humble ... more philanthropic … or more dedicated, not just to the ideal of public service but the sweat work of public service.
Asawa, working with whatever wire was available, began making her wire sculptures in 1947 while a student at Black Mountain. She discovered that in addition to single-layered sculptures, she could create continuous or intersecting surfaces. Sensual and organic, these multilayered yet still transparent works created a dynamic interplay between interior and exterior surfaces. Her work is inspired by sights found in nature, including plants, snail shells, spiderwebs, insect wings and water droplets.
“These are beautiful shimmering mesh looped wire hangings that seem to curve in and out and in and out,” Chase said. “These very sinuous forms … the inside becomes the outside and the outside becomes the inside, almost like a snake shedding its skin.”
Although her work was vibrant, creative and unusual enough to attract international attention by the 1950s, including reviews in Time and Life magazines, her name was not always mentioned among the leaders of the art world. “At the same time the reviewers were drawn to the beauty of the work they also would use these slightly demeaning, slightly reductive terms,” Chase said. “They would say it’s sort of pretty, it’s delicate, it’s feminine it’s crafty. Early on, her work was shown in a decorators’ showcase.”
Dr. Daniell Cornell, of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, curated an Asawa exhibit in 2007 at the Japanese-American National Museum, noting that her works were often not included among those of other 20th century sculptors. “Because her work uses nontraditional materials and a manual method that appears related to knitting, weaving and craft, it is often overlooked in discussions of modernist sculpture,” explained Cornell. “Furthermore, her decision to create works that hang, often meant to be seen from below, challenges the standard conventions of sculpture.”
None of the hanging sculptures shown on the stamps have formal titles, though they do have numbers. Some stamps show multiple works. For example, the stamp at top left in the pane shows three looped wire sculptures (left to right) and are described as follows: Untitled (S.114, Hanging Six-Lobed Continuous Form Within a Form With One Suspended and Two Tied Spheres), circa 1958; Untitled (S.077, Hanging Miniature Seven-Lobed Continuous Form Within a Form), circa 1978; and Untitled (S.036, Hanging Seven-Lobed, Multilayered Interlocking Continuous Form Within a Form, With Spheres in the First, Sixth and Seventh Lobes), 1959.
In July 1949, Asawa married architect Albert Lanier, whom she met in 1947 at Black Mountain College, and they made their way back to California, settling in the San Francisco area. The couple had six children, including Paul Lanier, who became an artist and sometimes helped his mother on art projects.
Paul Lanier spoke in 2010 at the renaming dedication ceremony at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. “She’s always had an amazing combination of kindness and genius,” he said about his mother, who was still alive at that time. “We had to get used to the fact that we have to share her with the world and this school that she cared about so much. We’re very proud to have her name on this school.”
Since her death in 2013, public and critical appraisal of her work has continued to reach wider audiences, with much lauded exhibitions and publications organized by major museums and galleries across the country.
A segment of this column was originally published in the October 2020 issue of The American Philatelist.