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Ruth Asawa, creator of wire sculptures, fountains; at 87

Ms. Asawa became known in San Francisco as the “fountain lady’’ for her designs.

Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle

Ms. Asawa became known in San Francisco as the “fountain lady’’ for her designs.

NEW YORK — Ruth Asawa, an artist who learned to draw in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II and later earned renown weaving wire into intricate, flowing, fanciful abstract sculptures, died Aug. 6 at her home in San Francisco, where many of her works now dot the cityscape. She was 87.

Her daughter Aiko Cuneo confirmed the death.

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Ms. Asawa had been shunted from one detention camp to another as a child before blossoming under the tutelage of artists Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Franz Kline, and Josef Albers. Gaining notice in the art world while still a student, she soon began building a wider following with abstract wire sculptures that expressed both the craftsmanship she had learned from Mexican basket makers as well as her ambition to extend line drawings into a third dimension. Many of these were hanging mobiles.

In 1968, she startled her admirers by creating her first representational work, a fountain in Ghirardelli Square on San Francisco’s waterfront. It had two mermaids — one nursing a “merbaby” — frogs, turtles, splashing water, and a recording of frogs croaking.

AP/file

Her sculpture “Aurora’’ frames a waterfront scene.

Lawrence Halprin, the distinguished landscape architect who designed the waterfront space, had planned to install an abstract fountain. But after a long, unexplained delay, the developer chose Ms. Asawa for the job. Her creation set off a freewheeling debate about aesthetics, feminism, and public art. Halprin, who had been a fan of Ms. Asawa’s abstractions, complained that the mermaids looked like a suburban lawn ornament. Ms. Asawa countered with old-fashioned sentiment. “For the old, it would bring back the fantasy of their childhood,” she said, “and for the young, it would give them something to remember when they grow old.”

By and large, San Franciscans loved it. Ms. Asawa went on to design other public fountains and became known in San Francisco as the “fountain lady.” For a work in a plaza near Union Square, she mobilized 200 schoolchildren to mold hundreds of images of the city in dough, which were then cast in iron.

Ms. Asawa’s wire sculptures are in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In May, one of her pieces sold at auction at Christie’s for $1.4 million, four times its appraised value.

After the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco opened a new building in 2005, it installed 15 of Ms. Asawa’s most significant hanging wire sculptures at the base of its tower. As they drift with air currents, her large organic forms have been said to resemble a giant, eerie kelp forest.

Her work is inextricably linked to her life. “Glimpses of my childhood” inspired her, she once said. One memory, of sunlight pouring through a dragonfly’s translucent wing, was transmuted into the crocheted wire sculptures for which she first became known. In 1958, The New York Times wrote of their “gossamer lightness” and the way “the circular and oval shapes seem like magic lanterns, one within the other.”

Institute of Contemporary Art

A copper and brass wire work.

Ms. Asawa said another influence came from riding on the back of horse-drawn farm equipment on fruit and vegetable farms where her Japanese-American parents worked in California. She made patterns with her feet as they dragged on the ground. “We made endless hourglass figures that I now see as the forms within forms in my crocheted wire sculptures,” she said in an interview with The Contra Costa Times in 2006.

A third influence — one she insisted was positive — was being held in internment camps with her family during the war, a fate that befell 120,000 Japanese Americans, rounded up by the US government for fear that they might aid the enemy. Her family spent the first five months of detention in stables at the Santa Anita Park racetrack. It was there that three animators from the Walt Disney Studios taught her to draw.

“I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one,” she said in 1994. “Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the internment, and I like who I am.”

Ruth Aiko Asawa was born in Norwalk, a Southern California farming town. Her third-grade teacher encouraged her artwork, and in 1939, her drawing of the Statue of Liberty took first prize in a school competition to represent what it means to be an American.

In 1942 FBI agents seized her father and sent him to an internment camp in New Mexico. Ms. Asawa did not see him for six years. Two months later, she, her mother and her five siblings were taken to the racetrack. After five months, they were taken to a camp in Arkansas, where Ms. Asawa graduated from high school.

In 1943, a Quaker organization arranged for her to attend Milwaukee State Teachers College, now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to prepare to be an art teacher. She completed three years but was unable to earn her degree after being barred from a required student-teacher program because of her ethnicity.

Ms. Asawa then spent three years at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a magnet for budding artists and renowned teachers. There she befriended choreographer Merce Cunningham and studied painting with Albers, whose theories on color were immensely influential. While still a student of his, in 1948, she caught the attention of a reviewer for the Times, who observed that her work “transformed Albers’s color-shape experiments into personal fantasy.”

Her husband of 59 years, Albert Lanier, an architect she met at Black Mountain, died in 2008. Their son Adam died in 2003. In addition to her daughter, Cuneo, she leaves her sons, Xavier, Hudson, and Paul; her daughter Addie Lanier; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Ms. Asawa supported arts education in San Francisco public schools, and in 2011, the one to which she was most devoted was renamed for her.

Her own educational experience came full circle in 1998, when the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which had prevented her from graduating a half-century earlier when it was a teachers college, sought to present her with an honorary doctorate. Ms. Asawa asked that she be awarded the bachelor’s degree instead.

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