Friday, January 05, 2007

Mommy Art (and Science)

“That’s really something!” exclaimed my mother when we walked into the gallery showing Ruth Asawa’s work at the de Young museum. The show is very comprehensive, covering both her career and life history. There are also numerous photographs taken by her friend, Imogen Cunningham. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, be sure to see the show before it closes on January 28. (If you live in Los Angeles, you are in luck because the show will be coming in spring 2007 to the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles. It will also be going to New York City in fall 2007.)

You really have to see it to experience firsthand how she masterfully develops three-dimensional volumes with a single one-dimensional line of continuous wire. It took my breath away. I walked through the exhibit twice. The first time, I walked alone, reading about her life and trying very hard to figure out her technique. The second time, I wandered through with my mother and enjoyed the pieces purely aesthetically. (I know most people would think this is backwards but I have the right to enjoy art my own way.)

It is too bad that the art world had to wait until she is in such frail health to recognize her genius and contribution to humanity. She has a wonderful website discussing her art, her life and the impact of her career and family on each another. What it doesn’t say is how she did it.

The exhibit and her website were purposefully skimpy on her technique. I read that she was sensitive about the subject because of the derisive manner in which the art establishment relegates women’s art to craft. (I will not go off here and discuss the strange western obsession of distinguishing between art and craft.) You have to imagine a world without a “knitting scientists” web ring—when calling an artists’ work knitting or crochet could be meant and taken offensively.

The art world was (is?) notoriously hostile to women. Additionally, Asawa was not just a woman, but a mother. Motherhood and art were both central to her self-image. She and Cunningham collaborated on images showing Asawa at work with children playing all around her.

Ruth Asawa is the great aunt of one of Iris’ playmates. Asawa’s niece said that the ground floor of Asawa’s house is one giant play space and studio. It also opened up to the backyard. The kids played all around and she worked when she could while playing and teaching her kids. She often worked early in the morning before the kids woke up or late in the night after they were asleep—typical mommy hours.

I believe that Asawa’s choice of media has a great deal to do with her dual role as a mother. She works in paper and wire, things that can be easily be put down and picked up at a later time. Unlike paint and clay, they don’t dry out. They are also nontoxic and do not require sharp implements. She worked in kid-safe media because she had to.

Gender and motherhood also influenced my decision to leave the lab and pursue computational science. The modern scientific experiment has become such complicated beasts. If they are fully working, a rare event, you need to stay there and take as much data as you can before something breaks down.

Pioneering nuclear scientist Dr. Darlene Hoffman used to teach a computing class for chemistry majors at UC Berkeley. She told students how women, especially, should embrace computational science. She explained how we could start a batch (computer) job in the afternoon before going to pick up our kids from school.After they were asleep, we could log in remotely to find out whether our batch jobs were running smoothly or had crashed. If the latter, we could troubleshoot the job and resubmit it before bed.In the morning, after we had dropped the kids off at school, we could come to work and analyze the data from the prior night’s run. I thought, yeah! Sign me up for a life without sleep!

What about Ruth Asawa’s technique?
I didn’t have time to watch the video accompanying the exhibit. (Iris was impatient). Another museum goer who did view it said that Asawa described her technique as starting with a loop and then going from there. In one photo, she is shown taking wire off a huge spool and coiling it with her bare hands into a tube of smaller coils of about 1-3 inches in diameter. In another picture, she held a long crochet (afghan?) hook in her hand.

Examining her work, I saw loops pulled through loops, making a twisted stockinette fabric. In my limited experience knitting with wire, I can imagine she could have worked knit fabric with a crochet hook. That wire is not going to unravel. She increased by introducing loops between existing “stitches”, a make one increase.She decreased by knitting two together. Her mastery of technique is amazing. Her stitches were flawlessly smooth loops with nary a kink anywhere.


Christopher Miles' review of the Asawa retrospective from the LA Times.

Tracy Krumm is an artist that crochets with wire. She is not afraid to be associated with a women’s medium.Read her artist’s statement.

Daina Taimina is an artist and mathematician who explores geometry with crocheted models. See a gallery of her work here. I took a workshop with her and you can read about it here.

They both work in familiar single and double crochet stitches.


I later took a class with Asawa's daughter, Aiko Cuneo. She taught us the rudiments of the looped wire technique. It's really very simple. Click on the link for a pictorial tutorial.

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