Interwoven Histories: The Generational Legacy of Ruth Asawa’s Arts Education Activism

Historical Essay

by Kathlynn Simotas, 2021

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Ruth Asawa in 1993 working with a student at the School of the Arts that was later named after her.

Photo: courtesy

Ruth Asawa, a legendary Japanese-American artist and sculptor based for most of her life in San Francisco, was not merely interested in the practice of art but in the education of the general public, particularly children. Inspired by her time spent at Black Mountain College in her formative years, she tirelessly worked for decades in the 1960s-80s to bring arts education to school children in San Francisco. She served on the San Francisco Arts Commision, established the Alvarado School Art Workshop that has evolved into the wide-reaching SFartsED, and finally in 1982 achieved her dream of establishing a public arts high school in San Francisco. The author, a 2nd-generation graduate of the public arts high school that now bears Ruth Asawa’s name, describes Ruth Asawa’s legacy in art education in San Francisco within the context of the multi-generational experience of attending her high school.

August 27th 2013 was a bright, brisk day at the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park across from the de Young. It was the end of my first week of high school at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (RA-SOTA or SOTA), and I was surrounded by a hundred person choir of talented teenagers. We had been invited to sing at the memorial for our school’s namesake and founder who had passed away a couple of weeks prior on August 5th. At the time, I didn’t understand then the gravity of the loss pulling all of those people from across the city and bay together, the gravity of Ruth Asawa herself, beyond a name tacked onto the beginning of my school’s name. But years later I am able to recognize that almost everything I gained at that school, I owe to her and her fundamental belief that art was meant for everyone. Ruth Asawa not only created astounding art and lived through unimaginable circumstances in her 87 years, she actively created a space for burgeoning artists to thrive in San Francisco through her arts education activism. She instilled in the school that became her namesake (as well as the entire San Francisco public school district) her value of hands-on learning and the democratization of arts education to children of all races and socioeconomic statuses which have changed the lives of my family and so many others.

To understand how Ruth Asawa grew into the paragon and pioneer of arts-focused education that founded the School of the Arts, Alvarado Street Workshop (now the SF Arts Education Project) (“What we do”, 2018), and served on countless committees city and state-wide, it is helpful to briefly delve into her background as a student and an artist. Asawa was born in 1926 in Norwalk California to Japanese immigrant parents. From childhood, she showed a proclivity and interest towards visual art which continued through the period of upheaval in her life caused by her 18 months of incarceration during WWII (Ruth Asawa's Life, n.d.). Once her incarceration ended, she soon learned of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experimental liberal arts college that would change her relationship with art forever (“Art, competence and citywide cooperation for San Francisco”, 1971 ).

Black Mountain College revolutionized the way Asawa thought about the teaching and practice of art (Ruth Asawa's Life, n.d.). The college was structured around the fundamental idea that the practice of art and experiential learning were central to a robust liberal arts education (“Black Mountain College: A Brief Introduction,” 2020). Asawa and other students of Black Mountain worked side by side with renowned artists including Josef Albers, an escapee of Nazi Germany and former member of the Bauhaus school of art and architecture. Albers became a lifelong mentor and friend of Asawa’s and taught her a teaching philosophy called synergetics, wherein small groups of students work side by side with a teacher, considering problems from all angles and disciplines before deciding on the best solution for the task at hand. The ideas behind synergetics, particularly the use of hands-on learning and experiential interdisciplinary perspectives became a model for Asawa’s educational systems that would sweep San Francisco (“Art, competence and citywide cooperation for San Francisco”, 1976).

After 3 years spent at Black Mountain, Asawa moved to San Francisco with her husband Albert Lanier (an architect who she also met at Black Mountain). Lanier and Asawa settled in San Francisco and had six children while Asawa continued her work as a sculptor. However, once Asawa’s children reached school age she grew dismayed with the lack of opportunities available for school children in San Francisco to engage with art and creative work (Chase, 2020). Art had propelled Asawa through her incarceration and other struggles. It had given her the opportunity to approach problems with a creative mindset and to express herself, all qualities she believed unique to the kind of education she had received from working directly with practicing artists. Asawa believed that children of all backgrounds had the right to be exposed to art and creative endeavors, and the best way to ensure access for as many students as possible, she determined, was to use the public school system (“Art, competence and citywide cooperation for San Francisco”, 1971; Aoki, 1990).


Ruth Asawa with students and mosaic artist Alfonso Pardiñas at Alvarado Elementary School, 1970.

Photo: courtesy

With this in mind, Asawa and her friend and neighbor Sally Woodbridge crafted an arts initiative aimed at elementary and middle school children which would allow children in their neighborhood to work on arts projects side by side with working artists, as Asawa had at Black Mountain. Their idea came to fruition in the form of the Alvarado Arts Workshop in the summer of 1968. The workshop was immediately impactful on students and continued through the next academic year as well as expanded to additional schools (Chase, 2020). In her descriptions and discussions of the Alvarado Arts Workshop, particularly once the workshop became funded and supported by the SFUSD a few years after its inception, Asawa made it clear that it was part of a larger goal of hers to bring practicing artists into the classroom and provide students from all backgrounds with the opportunity to make and engage with art ( “The Alvarado Elementary School Children's Workshop: A Statement of Purpose by Ruth Asawa”, Asawa). The end goal for that plan would be the ultimate realization of bringing interdisciplinary, hands-on arts education to San Francisco: the establishment of a public arts magnet school based on the synergetic learning model she was taught at Black Mountain (Chase, 2020).

Although it took more than a decade, Asawa was able to tap into the connections she forged serving on the San Francisco Arts Commission, the California Arts Council and other organizing arts-focused bodies as well as working with local artists and donors to accumulate the funding and support necessary to establish an experimental school-within-a-school at the McAteer High School campus located on a hill at the top of Market street. Asawa’s ultimate goal was to house the school within the arts district of San Francisco near the Civic Center, so that teaching artists and engagement opportunities with the opera, symphony, ballet, and museums would be more readily accessible to students. During the long process of proposing and mapping out plans for SOTA, Asawa also made a point of proposing a version of SOTA where all students “interesting in this field of endeavor and willing to work” would be invited to apply, although the admissions process was ultimately decided on being merit and talent based, as well as open for students from across the Bay Area (Asawa, 1976).

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The site of McAteer High School, now the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, at the top of Glen Canyon.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

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The school from its athletic field looking north.

Photo: SOTA

Though not in the ideal location and not yet an independent school as Asawa had hoped, the San Francisco School of the Arts began as a cohort of students within McAteer High School in 1982. The school, which began officially with 150 freshmen in its first year, doubled in size the next year (Chase, 2020). My mother, a transfer student to McAteer from a Daly City high school, was an upperclassman incorporated into the first group of students in what would become the School of the Arts’ dance department. In my mother’s time there, SOTA was a work in progress propped up by the existing arts department at McAteer high school and the enthusiasm of its teachers and students. But from the very beginning, SOTA offered my mother an experiential learning environment where she was taught to work with other students to choreograph and perform dances and she was taught by practicing dancers. In terms of creating an equitable learning environment for students across the Bay Area, my mother remembers that was not the case. Although more racially diverse in the 80s than it is now (partially due to it being housed within McAteer which was known to have a diverse student population), my mother being one of several black and biracial students in the dance department alone at its inception, there was still a fundamental barrier of auditioning and being accepted to the program which required years of training, not necessarily provided by the offshoot of the Alvarado Arts Workshop (now SFartsEd). All of the students my mother danced with had access to private or group dance lessons not provided by the public school system, otherwise they would not have had the preparation required to attend SOTA.

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This public fountain designed by Asawa at Ghirardelli Square was at the center of a brief storm of controversy when it was installed in the late 1960s.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

SOTA served Asawa’s goals for my mother. Dancing at SOTA gave her the opportunity to express herself and gain lifelong friends. My mother valued her experience at SOTA so much that I grew up listening to stories of her dancing at the arts school perched on the hill, and it was the connection between learning and art that she gained from SOTA that led to her putting me in music lessons at a young age and instilling in me a fundamental value for the arts. In 2013, I began attending the newly renamed Ruth Asawa SOTA as a member of the Vocal Department. Though still housed at the same campus my mother attended, RA-SOTA was now a fully fledged and independent school with more than 10 arts departments. From my very first week I was thrown into the synergetic learning model of learning by doing; I sang a piece I had learned two days prior in front of a crowd for Ruth Asawa’s memorial.

The rest of my time at RA-SOTA was marked with that same sense of ownership over my craft. I too was given the opportunity to work with practicing artists, often in small groups or one on one for the entire afternoon every day of school. I truly became a musician during my time there, learning from my peers and mentors, but it was not without problems and didn’t always live up to Asawa’s fundamental goals. For one thing, RA-SOTA was no closer to moving to the ideal downtown location than it was in 1982, save for a contingent of the dance department who worked at a studio downtown. We had practicing artists teaching us art (and sometimes history, math, and english which was a great way to breach disciplinary bounds) but they were severely underpaid which impacted their ability to practice their arts outside of teaching. RA-SOTA also had the same problems that it did when my mother was there: the audition process kept out underserved students from the public schools that were supposed to feed into my school. This translated in my time to a severe lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity due to the barrier to entry. When I was a junior, the district decided to close off RA-SOTA’s auditions to only students who lived in San Francisco, hoping that decision would force the school to become more diverse by default (Tucker, 2015). That didn’t fix the problem, which still exists due to the displacement of many of the minority families out of San Francisco to the larger Bay Area and beyond. In this way, by failing to provide public school students in San Francisco enough access to free arts programs within schools that prepare them for RA-SOTA at a younger age, RA-SOTA is far away from being the dream its founder envisioned.

However, even though it may not live up to its founding principles now, RA-SOTA has immortalized Asawa in what can be considered one of her most impactful contributions to the history of art in general and of art in San Francisco. The school that bears her name has become a generational tradition of arts education in my family and many others. The school is a unique and valuable opportunity to turn students into artists and lifelong art enthusiasts. I owe all of my experiences that have made me into a musician to Ruth Asawa’s legacy and vision that art could be for all. I hope and believe that someday art will be directly integrated into public school curricula across San Francisco and that Asawa’s dream of a full pipeline of providing students with arts-focused education throughout their formative years will be fulfilled.

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Various works by Ruth Asawa at the David Zwirner gallery in New York City.

Photo courtesy David Zwirner gallery

Works Cited:

Aoki, K. (1990, May 2). Ruth Asawa Receives the Cyril Magnin Award. Speech presented at Chamber of Commerce Business Arts Awards Luncheon, San Francisco.

Asawa, R. (1976, December 1). A Proposal for A High School of the Creative Arts [Letter to Board of Education and Superintendent Robert Alioto and Advisory Committee, Creative Arts High School]. San Francisco, CA.

Asawa, R. (n.d.). The Alvarado Elementary School Children's Workshop: A Statement of Purpose by Ruth Asawa [Pamphlet].

Black Mountain College: A Brief Introduction. (2020, December 10). Retrieved from

Chase, M. (2020). Everything she touched the life of Ruth Asawa. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier [Interview by P. Karlstrom]. (2002, June).

Art, competence and citywide cooperation for San Francisco : Oral history transcript [Interview by H. Nathan]. (1971-1976).

Ruth Asawa's Life. (2021, April 27). Retrieved from

Tucker, J. (2015, May 23). is the only San,out-of-district transfers. Out-of-towners could be banned at S.F.'s premier arts school.

What We Do—The San Francisco Arts Education Project. (2018, May 15).