‘Art will make people better, more highly capable of thinking and improving whatever business or profession one enters into. It makes one broader.” So proclaims Ruth Asawa in 1976. Born 50 years earlier, she was an American artist acclaimed for her cocoon-like sculptures made of interlocking, silvery threads that hang from the ceiling and evoke womb-like forms. When illuminated, they create shadows, enhancing unexpected shapes from every angle.
Asawa is also remembered as one of the leading educators in the San Francisco region, having founded the city’s first public art high school in 1982 – renamed Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in 2010. Raised on a farm in California by immigrant Japanese parents As a teenager, Asawa became one of the 100,000 Japanese Americans placed in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. In the camp, one of her tutors Tom Okamoto, an animator for Walt Disney, included, which undoubtedly served as an influence for her later fine line drawings.
Upon her release, Asawa trained at the Milwaukee State Teachers College for three years, but anti-Japanese racism prevented her from finding work. In 1946 she enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, one of the most revolutionary art colleges of the 20th century. Black Mountain adopted the principles of the Bauhaus, offering painting, philosophy, mathematics and music and attempting to eliminate hierarchies between students and teachers.
With faculty staff that included Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage and Buckminster Fuller – even Albert Einstein was on the board – the school, says Emma Ridgway, curator of last year’s Asawa exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, was about creating “ active citizens of democracy ” by “making people and working”.
After excelling at college and intrigued by his approach to art and life, Asawa moved to San Francisco and set up her practice at home, all while raising her six children. But after seeing the lack of art education for children in the city, she founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop in 1968.
Led by parents, teachers and professional artists, the workshop encouraged children to use “baker’s clay” (flour, salt and water mixed): cheap material that can be cooked and turned into small ceramic sculptures. Asawa once remarked, “I am primarily interested in making it possible for people to become as independent and self-sufficient as possible. It has nothing really to do with art, except that through the arts you can learn many, many skills.”
I thought of this commitment to non-hierarchical education, to shape young people into well-rounded citizens, in light of Rishi Sunak’s speech last week, which suggested that it should be compulsory for all UK students up to the age of 18 to study mathematics.
Although numeracy is a key asset for young people, it should not be considered above other subjects. Sunak’s view of education should be to play to people’s strengths. Not every young person succeeds in maths – for example 6% of the British population has dyscalculia.
Sunak said in his speech that since “data is everywhere and statistics support every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before”. Yet data does not support everything. To be balanced and fair, we need diverse thinkers. Not giving children the opportunity to explore different subjects is failing them.
This new emphasis on maths also comes in the face of major cuts to arts education, even though the UK’s creative industries are worth more than £100bn to the economy. In 2021, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson cut funding for art and design courses by 50% across higher education institutions in England, focusing the money on Core subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.
Lizzie Crump and Sam Cairns of Cairns Crump, a freelance consultancy specializing in arts and education, say: “All learning should enable young people to make meaning through self-expression, giving them the skills and understanding to be personally, economically and socially our society.”
Never has there been a more urgent time to support the arts and arts education to create well-rounded citizens. As Asawa affirmed, “Through the arts you can learn many skills that you cannot learn through problem solving in the abstract.”