This week, I and countless other art lovers were saddened to learn of the death of famed San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, you very well might recognize her gorgeous wire sculptures or have enjoyed one of the many public fountains in San Francisco that earned her the nickname “The Fountain Lady.”
Countless artists’ lives intersected with Pond Farm and Marguerite Wildenhain, but Asawa’s connections are particularly fascinating and layered. Both Marguerite Wildenhain and Ruth Asawa overcame extreme obstacles to become leading figures in the male-dominated 20th century art world. Wildenhain was forced to flee Nazi persecution of Jews, while Asawa spent the war years in the Rohrer Japanese American internment camp in Arkansas.
After her release from Rohrer, Asawa attended Black Mountain College, an innovative, experimental school in North Carolina. While at Black Mountain, Asawa met many well-known artists like Buckminster Fuller (who would later design a wedding ring for Asawa!), as well as many less well-knownartists like weaver Trude Guermonprez.
Guermonprez, in fact, is another star in the Pond Farm constellation. Like Wildenhain, Guermonprez was German. She attended the Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in Halle, where Wildenhain was on the faculty before being forced to resign due to her Jewish heritage. Both Wildenhain and Guermonprez went on to live and work in the Netherlands in the 30s. Eventually, Guermonprez relocated to the United States with the help of Anni Albers, another Bauhaus graduate (and wife of famed Bauhaus artist Josef Albers.)
While at Black Mountain College Asawa met her future husband Albert Lanier, who was studying architecture and design. In 1948, the two met Marguerite Wildenhain, who was visiting the college to make a presentation—and to recruit artists to join the nascent Pond Farm Workshops faculty. The following year, Asawa and Lanier moved to San Francisco, and soon thereafter the couple made a trip up to Pond Farm to visit Wildenhain. By then, Trude Guermonprez had resigned her position at Black Mountain and was teaching alongside Wildenhain at Pond Farm.
Within a few years, the Pond Farm Workshops experiment was over, but Wildenhain stayed on. After several visits to Pond Farm through the 1950s, Asawa and Lanier were able to buy land nearby. Like Wildenhain, Asawa was greatly influenced by the Russian River valley environment, whose natural forms she incorporated into her art.
In the 1960s, when Wildenhain decided to make some improvements at Pond Farm, she turned to none other than Albert Lanier to remodel her modest home and to design a simple, modern vernacular guest house. Today, the guest house is in good condition, since unlike the barn/studio and Marguerite’s house, it has remained in constant use, serving as park employee housing.
With Ruth Asawa’s passing, there are very few survivors of a generation of influential artists that came of age during the horrors of World War II. Remarkably, Pond Farm Workshops sculptor and metalworker Victor Ries, who like Wildenhain escaped Nazi persecution of Jews, is still alive at the age of 105. While Ruth Asawa’s death is a great loss to us all, she and her fellow artists of her generation have left us with an artistic legacy that will live on. Through our efforts and the support of many, so too shall Pond Farm, the place that has nourished and inspired countless artists and art lovers alike.