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Begin Here: Ruth Asawa/Milk Carton Sculpture

Begin Here: Ruth Asawa/Milk Carton Sculpture

Core Lesson Idea: Creating tangible, geometric objects helps in the visualization and understanding of spatial dimensions.

Artistic Process: Ruth Asawa believed that “art is for everybody.” Asawa’s ever-expanding artistic explorations relied on experiences in her own life and ordinary materials. Her studio, her home, and her local community, particularly the public schools that her children attended, intertwined. Working with readily found materials, she infused everyday experience with creative learning.

Milk Carton Sculpture workbook

Cover of Milk Carton Sculpture booklet by Ruth Asawa, John Brunn, Aiko Cuneo, Mae Lee, Mary Lee, and Sara Morgan. ©1983

Lesson: In 1983, working with a group of collaborators, Asawa developed the Milk Carton Sculpture workbook. The intention was to encourage playful investigation with a readily found material to deepen students’ experience with otherwise abstract mathematical thinking.

The introduction to the workbook explains: “The usual approach to geometry in school is to start with plane geometry and then to proceed to solid geometry. However, the three-dimensional world of solid objects is much closer to the students’ experience. . .By dealing with objects that the child can touch and even toss around, more of the senses are involved and learning can take place naturally and in the spirit of fun and exploration.”

The projects in Milk Carton Sculpture begin with a simple form that allows for individual elaboration. “The intuition developed through the use of milk carton geometry will also be helpful in algebra, trigonometry, and later on in calculus classes where students must understand figures in two and three dimensions.”

Historical Context: Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) was a nationally recognized and beloved San Francisco sculptor, public artist, and passionate arts education advocate.

She is best known for her crocheted wire sculpture conceived as three-dimensional line drawings. Made from everyday materials including iron, copper, and brass, the works were inspired by a method she learned in Toluca, Mexico, in 1947 from locals making baskets to hold eggs. Asawa’s sinuous mesh forms are made from a single wire envelop and often suspend further curving forms.

Born in Norwalk, California, Asawa was drawn to art at a young age. In 1942, during WWII, her family was sent to live in Japanese-American internment camps: first at the Santa Anita racetrack and then at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. Studying art under artists at the camp, she graduated from the internment center’s high school, and enrolled in the Milwaukee State Teachers College with the intention of becoming an art teacher. Unable to find a teaching position to complete her degree because of lingering cultural prejudices, Asawa enrolled in the now-legendary Black Mountain College where she studied, from 1946 to 1949, under artists including painter Josef Albers, dancer Merce Cunningham, and architect/inventor Buckminster Fuller.

In 1949, Asawa married fellow Black Mountain College student architect Albert Lanier and moved to San Francisco, where she eventually had six children.

In the 1950s, Asawa's work received international attention when her wire sculptures were featured at the Whitney Museum of American Art and in the 1955 São Paulo Art Biennial. Over the next several decades, she became known in San Francisco as the “fountain lady,” developing works such as the origami-inspired Aurora (1986) in public plazas throughout the city.

Ruth Asawa, Sculptor and Her Children, 1958

Sculptor Ruth Asawa and her children, 1958. ©1958, 2014 Imogen Cunningham Trust

In 1968, Asawa, Sally Woodbridge, and other parents with children at Alvarado Elementary School cofounded the Alvarado Arts Workshop. With limited funds, they gathered everyday materials, such as milk cartons and egg cartons, and invited local artists to work directly with the students. The Alvarado program spread to other schools; employed artists, musicians, and gardeners; and engaged thousands of parents in public education. At its peak, the Alvarado School Arts Workshop was adapted by 50 public schools in San Francisco. Asawa also advanced arts education policy through her participation in the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council.

In 1982, Asawa turned her focus to founding School of the Arts (SOTA), a public high school in San Francisco. In 2010, the school was renamed the Ruth Asawa SF School of the Arts. Today, Asawa’s son, Paul, teaches art at Alvarado Elementary School while her daughter, artist Aiko Cuneo, continues to share her mother’s teaching techniques.  

Keywords: experiential, everyday materials, geometry, math

Daniell Cornell (editor), Emily Doman (contributor), et al. The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air. (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2006.)