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Reflections on Ruth Asawa

Dear Reader,
My goal is to Sharpie women into history. Yes, Sharpie, as in the permanent marker. I came across this phrase during lockdown when I began, like everyone else, to assess my life - namely what I love doing and what I want to do more of. My first office job was for Dana Bash at CNN during my sophomore year of college. It was an unpaid internship in cash, but I credit the experience with everything I have done since. It instilled in me a desire to pay back that experience through having interns of my own. Like at CNN, I see this as a teaching moment by me to young people looking to get real world experience in production, both glamorous and tedious.
My latest production was birthed from my deep admiration of Peggy Guggenheim and her "Exhibition by 31 Women". You'll be hearing more about them over time... For now, Amy Hattori (who interned with me at SEGAL NYC this summer) has created a post on why the 31 Women really do need to be Sharpied into history, so that we can each be connected with our own history through our own experiences.
Amy's story is magical - we all had chills when that "AHA" moment came. We hope you'll enjoy this excavation. Feel free to let us know how you connect!

As my internship at Segal NYC comes to a close, I am able to look back fondly on the time I've spent closely researching the incredible artists in the 31 Women exhibit. I resonate with Baroness Elsa von-Freytag Loringhoven's carefree attitude, admire Aline-Meyer Liebman's professionalism, and long for the artistic talent of all of them. While researching, I hoped to find the one woman who could become my role model. Yet, there was something deep and indefinable in me that struggled to connect with some of the women on my search for a posthumous mentor.

My ethnicity is not a typical topic of conversation for me, as I have spent my life trying to connect with people on the basic human level, all labels aside. In late June, the office held a celebratory lunch at a sushi restaurant. Toward the end of the meal, a dish was brought out that looks like a dense, yellow sponge, the size of a Snickers bar. This dish– tamagoyaki– happens to be one of my favorite Japanese foods. Someone at the table asked what it was and I explained that it's an extremely thin omelet that has been rolled into a thick log then sliced into rectangles. A co-worker picked up on my knowledge and my last name "Hattori" (we have Kill Bill to thank for that) and asked if I am Japanese.

Photograph © Imogen Cunningham Trust and Estate of Ruth Asawa/David Zwirner Gallery

I explained to those listening how my great grandparents immigrated to California in the early 1900s, worked on farms, and had loads of children. Over the course of the discussion, Jenna told me to look into Ruth Asawa– a world-renown Japanese-American abstract sculptor who drew inspiration from her childhood on a farm in California. I was shocked I hadn't heard of her before, especially as many female abstract artists from the 20th century kept a close community.

While researching every woman in the 31 Women project, I ask "where were they at the onset of World War II?" For some, they were in Paris and fled to New York, making the most out of their new American artist community. Others were already safely in the states or Mexico, no bombings and Nazis to hide from. So when Peggy Guggenheim held the gallery in 1943, where was Ruth Asawa?

Photograph © Robin Hattori, my aunt

Beyond the fact that a most talented Ruth was only a teenager at the time, it was physically impossible for her to participate. Like my own family, Ruth was imprisoned in one of several internment camps during America's involvement in the war– from 1941 to 1945. Ruth's family and my family were both forcibly moved to Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. Pages from my Great-Aunt Ida's Rohwer Center High School yearbook label Ruth as a member of the National Honor Society and Sketch Club, and winner of the "Most Artistic" senior superlative. While kids in Rohwer were able to attend school, life was far from normal. To put it bluntly, they were imprisoned refugees in their own country– in their birth country.

Photograph © Robin Hattori, my aunt

At a tumultuous period for women's rights, I find myself reflecting on Ruth and how she dealt with becoming admired by a country that tried so hard to make her disappear. How can I, as someone who both loves and reckons with America on a daily basis, take Ruth's life as an example? Members of my own family returned to Japan upon release, unwilling to deal with a lifetime of fear and hatred that would be thrown at them. Having grown up in Georgia, I'm unsure of my future there as its politics and healthcare become unreliable.

Ruth also moved south, after her internment, and attended art school, fell in love, and was picked up by gallerists around the world. Ruth is an outlier, not the example, of what the average Japanese-American did with their freedom. We cannot point to Ruth and say, "see it wasn't that bad, she turned out so successful!" like we do with our favorite survivor success stories. With Ruth and all the 31 Women, I strive to tell an honest account of the stunning art work that accompanied imperfect and difficult lives. I am grateful to have found kinship in the life of Ruth and hope everyone who participates in the future of the 31 Women project can find similar inspiration. The final step is to share your role model with others, so their name is never again forgotten. So, may I present: Ruth.

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