On the origins of Ruth Asawa’s method for creating her suspended wire sculptures.

Ruth Asawa in 1973, photo by Mimi Jacobs.

The Myth

There is a myth about Ruth Asawa, the Japanese-American sculptor known for her suspended wire forms.

The myth says that she went to Mexico in 1947 (or ‘48) and “a local craftsman taught her to weave baskets out of metal wire.”

One of the characteristics of a myth is that the details are scarce and never change. Over and over, in article after article, and even on museum websites, the myth is repeated, along with the misnomer of describing Asawa’s sculptures as woven.

This myth is widely accepted but I wondered, where are these Mexican metal wire baskets?

If a craftsman taught her a skill while she was in Mexico, where is the evidence of, if not the craftsman or woman, at least his or her tradition?

We do know that she spent two summers in Mexico, volunteering with the Quakers, and visiting murals by Diego Rivera with her professors and others from Black Mountain College.  If that craftsman taught her to make wire baskets, surely there are other examples of Mexican wire basketry?

Some articles say that these baskets were egg baskets, that seems like a promising lead, since wire egg baskets do exist in many countries.  But wire egg baskets are generally not crocheted, as Asawa herself has said her work is.

Mexico has a remarkable tradition of metalsmithing, including silversmithing, coppersmithing and tin punching. And Mexico has a fine and ancient tradition of basket weaving, but not in metal.  Why would you make baskets out of wire, when there was an abundant supply of palm leaves and other dried plant material to work with?

Mexican Basket Making Traditions

In The Crafts of Mexico, Ana Paulina Gámez writes

“Because the materials used in basketry disintegrate so easily, there are not enough surviving samples to reconstruct the history of this folk art. This has unfortunately left us with a huge gap in our knowledge, making the study of basketry very difficult.
In addition, because basketry objects are produced so abundantly and so inexpensively, they have not attracted much attention. Only recently, with the creation of ethnographic museums, have basketry items become collectible. This explains the great lack of examples of work from before the 1960s, and perhaps where there is so little research on this topic in Mexico, especially that which focuses on archaeological and historical periods, though some ethnographic studies have been published in recent years.” (p. 308)

A key characteristic to notice here: the baskets disintegrated.  If there were a tradition of metal wire baskets, made by crochet or other method, there would be more surviving examples.

Continuing from the same book, The Crafts of Mexico, same author:

“As we have mentioned, basketry depends the botanical resources available and the weaving styles used. It may be defined as a set of techniques through which rigid or semi-rigid rectilinear elements are interwoven, without the assistance of any kind of loom, to form receptacles or flat objects.” (p. 304)

She goes on to explain that cylindrical tompeates were woven from palm.

“The weaving technique is used on the interlacing of two or more series of active elements, which in textile arts are referred to as the warp and weft. This technique is used for receptacles, bags and mats, and is the most versatile process in basketry.” (p.307)

Let’s look at a picture of Mexican craftspeople weaving baskets using a traditional method:

Two women Weaving Baskets in Cuitzeo, Michoacán, Mexico, 2013.

Two women Weaving Baskets in Cuitzeo, Michoacán, Mexico, 2013.

You can see that this style of making a basket has a warp and a weft. Ruth Asawa’s pieces are not woven, as they do not utilize a warp and a welt (two pieces of material, perpendicular to each other), but instead her work uses a single wire, from start to finish.

Ruth Asawa’s Technique for Making Her Sculptures

Ruth Asawa at work, 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham.

Ruth Asawa at work, 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham.

How did Aswa make her pieces, and how did she describe them at the time? She gave an interview to the San Francisco Examiner, that ran on May 12,1957 p. 80. In it the article, she says of her signature work, “They’re like line drawings, only they have dimensions, and I’m only beginning to explore them.”

The author of the article, Nancy Gray, goes on,

“But what is success today began as a humble (and novel) experiment no more than 10 years ago. It was started when the artist was a college girl (at North Carolina’s Black Mountain) summering with the Friends Service Committee in Mexico. ‘I was teaching children to weave palm leaves into baskets, then,” she explained. “We used some wire in the process, and in playing around with this, I got the idea of crocheting it. This is really crocheting, you know,’ she went on in her quiet, retiring way.”

While the San Francisco Examiner is not a fine art publication it is a newspaper of long standing and the interview was very close (relatively speaking) in time to the period being discussed, as the trips to Mexico were ten years before the article was written.

Crocheter Kathryn Vercillo says of Asawa’s work,

“They’re beautiful but you can’t always tell that they are crochet if you’re not familiar with her process, just because it’s tough to see those stitches sometimes when they are uniquely done in metalwork.”

(Crochet Concupiscence blog)

Asawa herself is quoted in The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air and describes her process as follows:

(it) “is like an ‘e’. You begin by looping a wire around a wooden dowel, then making a string of e’s, always making the same e loop. You can make different sized loops depending on the weight of the wire and the size of the dowel. You can loop tight and narrow or more open and loose. The materials are simple. You can use baling wire, copper wire, brass wire. We used whatever we had. It’s an amazing technique.”

But how did this happen? The myth states that Asawa went to Mexico and a craftsman taught her how to make metal wire baskets, using crochet. This is improbable, as Mexico seems to have no tradition of wire basket making. Is it possible that a lone Mexican craftsman made baskets using crochet? Let us explore that possibility.

Is it possible to make a basket using crochet?

Yes, it is possible, but it’s not a traditional basket making technique, and it’s not a very good or efficient way to make a basket.

How would that be done? Coil baskets are an ancient form of basketry, utilized in Mexico and elsewhere. In that method, a solid core of plant material is coiled and connected to itself with additional strips of dried plant material.

Coil basket in progress; from the state of Hidalgo, Mexico.

Coil basket in progress; from the state of Hidalgo, Mexico.

Ana Paulina Gámez writes in The Crafts of Mexico,

“Spiral coiling is the oldest technique, according to archaelogical findings. Advasio defines it as a horizontal, passive element wrapped around itself to form the foundation, which is then subjected to a vertical, active element that is the stitching. The basket is supported by the successive stitches that keep the foundation fixed in place.” (p.307)

But what is that technique, could that method of wrapping each successive layer of the coil be crochet? Modern crocheters do make decorative bowls using yarn, a crochet hook and cotton clothes line as the “core” around which they crochet. But what is this “stitching” that basket makers used? I needed to ask a basket maker, so I consulted artist and expert basket maker Karen Gubitz.

She said no, that stitch used to connect the coil in a spiral coil basket is not crochet.

That makes it unlikely that the whatever inspiration that happened in Mexico for Ruth Asawa was a direct result of a basket weaving lesson that taught her a specific technique.

If Mexican craftspeople were involved in teaching or inspiring Ruth Asawa, I want to honor them. I want to find their techniques, recognize that and honor it. But I can’t find it.

I spoke to Karen Gubitz about the lack of wire baskets in Mexico and how this myth doesn’t add up. She said, “Yes, that’s always bothered me.”

What happened in Mexico?

What did Ruth see or do or learn that caused her to go back to Black Mountain College and pick up baling wire from the farm there, (or some other kind of wire) and begin to make simple bowls, using crochet?

Karen Gubitz sees the creative leap that Asawa made as being the idea that you could take a single line, a single piece of material and create a three dimensional object from that, from that one continuous line. Which is a huge insight for Asawa to make.

Let’s look at her early bowl forms, made back at Black Mountain, here is one from 1948-49:

Ruth Asawa, Basket, 1948-1949, woven copper wire, 4.5 x 7.5 x 7.75 inches. Black Mountain College Collection, Museum purchase with funds provided by 2010 Collectors' Circle with additional funds provided by Frances Myers, 2011.01.02.58. Asheville Art Museum.

Ruth Asawa, Basket, 1948-1949, woven copper wire, 4.5 x 7.5 x 7.75 inches. Black Mountain College Collection, Museum purchase with funds provided by 2010 Collectors’ Circle with additional funds provided by Frances Myers, 2011.01.02.58. Asheville Art Museum.

It is a modest start for where she would later take this work, but it makes sense, as a start.

Then she took it further and began to make shapes like her own drawings, though she said she didn’t have a plan, she’d just work.  It makes sense though that an artist would make forms in 3D like those that she’d been drawing in her sketchbooks. And she said as much:

“All my wire sculptures are made from the same loop. And there’s only one way to do it. The idea is to do it simply, and you end up with a shape. That shape comes out working with the wire. You don’t think ahead of time, “this is what I want”. You work on it as you go along. You make the line, a two-dimensional line, then you go into space, and you have a three-dimensional piece. It’s like a drawing in space.” (The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air)

Here’s an image of an ink and wash drawing on paper by Ruth Asawa from the same time period, 1948-1949.  This is from her dancer motif series.

Ink and Wash Drawing on paper by Ruth Asawa, 1948-1949, 8" x 10" Collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Ink and Wash Drawing on paper by Ruth Asawa, 1948-1949, 8″ x 10″ Collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Why else would Asawa make this work? Why wire?

Describing what was available to them to work with while at Black Mountain College, in the 2002 Smithsonian Archives of Art interview with Asawa and her husband, Al Lanier, she said,

“And we were so poor that we were taking materials that were around us and using leaves and rocks and things that were natural rather than having good paper and good materials that we bought. We had to scrounge around with things that were around us. And I think that was very good for us.”

We know that Black Mountain College had a farm near it and that Ruth learned to drive a double clutch truck in order to go pick up milk that she then made butter with. She says in the oral interview, “And then I used to make butter for the college from the milk and the cream.”

Ruth grew up on a farm, before internment, and was on a farm again, at least when she picked up the milk. Baling wire, a soft steel used to tie up bales of hay, is available on farms, so this is an inexpensive material that Ruth would likely have known about.

We know that wherever Ruth was, she learned from whoever was around.  In the short time she and her family where interned at their first camp at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, California, she studied drawing with Japanese American animators who had worked for Walt Disney.

She experimented and was scrappy, she used, “whatever we had.”

She has said that her wire sculptures are “drawing in the air,” and if you look at her drawings, you can see the relationship between what she drew in 2D on paper and what she drew in the air, in wire.

Ruth Asawa cut paper collage, 1946-1949, Collection of Harvard Art Museums.

Ruth Asawa cut paper collage, 1946-1949, Collection of Harvard Art Museums.

We also know that experimentation was encouraged at Black Mountain College, indeed, the college itself was an experiment.

It follows logically that a creative, always learning artist, who was scrappy and resourceful and grew up on a farm, would be a lateral thinker, would make creative leaps.

I think the truth is much more interesting than a myth, and gives much deserved credit to Ruth Asawa for her lateral thinking and creative leap as she began the process that would become her signature style.

Can I prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt? No, I cannot, but I have presented logical, supported arguments based on observation, reading and consultation with experts.

I hope that art historians will take up this challenge and take it further.

Sources

The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, by Daniell Cornell, et al

The Crafts of Mexico, by Margarita de Orellana, Alberto Ruy Sanchez

Smithsonian Archives of American Art; Oral History Interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, 2002

San Francisco Examiner, May 12, 1957 p. 80

Interview, with Karen Gubitz, September 22, 2019

RuthAsawa.com

Crochet Concupiscence Blog, Celebrating the Crochet Metal Sculptures of Ruth Asawa, September 5, 2013.

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This essay is a non-profit, educational endeavor.  It was first published on ElaineLutherArt.com on November 9, 2019.

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Update, 11/11/19

Crochet expert Carol Venture writes in the comments below:

“Ruth’s work is not crocheted, but looped. Looped bags are still made in Mexico – not from wire – but from cordage. Asawa could have learned the looping technique there, but decided to use a different medium for her own work.”

Thank you Carol!  

I searched for images of that kind of bag and found this one: https://www.nativehands.co.uk/courses-homepage/netted-basketry-bag

So, it appears that we have solved the mystery!  Not a basket, but a bag, and not even crochet, but netted, or looped.  (And still not woven.)

Now, if we can just get all the museums to update their signs!

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Epilogue: Why I Care So Much Whether Museums Tell the Truth About Ruth Asawa and her Technique

As a craftsperson, I care about how things are made.  I want museum labels to tell me what something is made out of and how it was made.

I’ve made a multi-decades study of metalsmithing, so if the art or artifact is metal, there’s a good chance I can tell how it was made by looking.  But you shouldn’t have to have that training in order to go into a museum and enjoy seeing and learning.

If the art or artifact is a medium I know less about, I have to rely on the museum to fill me in.

How something is made matters.  Who made it matters.  If an artist designed a piece and a craftsperson actually built it, I want to know that.  Withholding that information from me, the museum-goer, is dishonest.

I thought Asawa’s technique was crochet, apparently it isn’t after all, even though she called it that herself.  It has the rather unsatisfying and not-very-specific name, “looping.”  But it still comes from the craft tradition and it’s still not weaving.  Calling it weaving, as some museums do, is just flat out inaccurate.  Details matter: it appears likely that Ruth Asawa learned a bag making technique in Mexico, not a basket making technique.  (of course that matters.)

Museums of the world, please update your wall labels.  Museum-goers of the world, don’t accept myths and stories at face value!  Keep digging!

Respectfully submitted, Elaine Luther, November 11, 2019