Sticks and Mosses


Ruth Asawa – tied wire sculpture from

I’ve been studying the art and life of Ruth Asawa, a Japanese American artist who among many other things, crocheted and wove beautiful sculptures out of simple wire with her fingers.

You can read my essay on her life and art that I wrote last night for my first contribution to the Ragged Cloth Cafe art discussion blog. What I didn’t say in my academic approach for the RCC, was my personal reflections on this artist’s life story.

In my research, I found that at age 16 she was interned in the same Japanese American internment camps that my grandparents were sent to during World War II — first the temporary housing in horse race stables in California, then one of umpteen permanent camps spread throughout western and midwest U.S. This was something that happened to people of Japanese heritage living on mainland  US. because of racial discrimination and war hysteria, regardless of the fact that many were U.S. citizens.

Asawa and my family happened to end up in the same camp at Rowher, Arkansas. I once tried to find the remains of this camp a few years ago but nothing was left. My family never says much about camp — my father was too young and my grandmother had the common Japanese attitude of shigatakani… and so it goes.

I once asked her what they did all that time in camp by the cypress swamp that smelled of rotten eggs, and she said, “oh, taught each other things, like ikebana.” (Japanese flower-arranging). “Of course,” she said, “There were no flowers in Rowher, so we used what we had, sticks and mosses.”

13 thoughts on “Sticks and Mosses”

  1. Thanks everyone for reading and the comments. I hope I didn’t sound to preachy. What I’ve always admired in people like Ruth and my grandmother, was the matter-of-factness attitude of making do with what you have. I like to show more of that quality in my work.

  2. Thanks for that incredible “story” about your family. I am amazed that people could adopt that attitude of shigatakani. I would be so angry at having my life taken from me…perhaps that is why they were able to keep their creativity. Thanks also for introducing me to Ruth Asawa. Her work is phenomenal!
    Hope you are feeling better!


  3. Pam, thanks for sharing the personal connection you have with Asawa.

    And what an amazing grandmother you have! The Japanese American internment experience is such a great model of prevailing against horrible circumstances and injustice! The photographs of families in front of their barracks with an impeccably tended garden, artists in the camps educating children, making ikebana out of stickes. It makes me so mad and at the same time so amazed and inspired by these resilient people.

  4. I love that quotation you included in the rcc post: “Sculpture is like farming. If you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.”

  5. I love her work. I think she designed a fountain or a sculpture or something that I remember seeing when I lived in Santa Rosa. I didn’t know that you had family in internment camps. It makes your story much more personal.

  6. What an interestig story and artist. I love the shadows her sculptural pieces cast- it’s like a backward glance. And finally an artist who has kids and had to combine those two things.

  7. Thank you for sharing the personal side of the story. It makes Ruth’s work even more relevant.

    It wasn’t just Japanese-Americans who were held – even lesser known are the thousands of first and second generation Japanese (and others) from the west coast of Latin American who were deported to the United States and held in camps during the war. Growing up in Peru, my husband remembers his parents telling him about the mass deportation of thousands of Italians, Germans and Japanese due to extreme pressure from the US government. And how people went to extreme lengths to avoid the deportations – changing their names, hiding/denying their nationality, giving up businesses and livelihoods and moving to remote areas of the country. A shameful event in history everywhere it was taking place.

  8. Wow Pam. Ruth’s story is all the more poignant for you and your family. The stories from the internment camps are sad and yet beautiful. Ikebana from sticks and stones. Asawa learning art from professional artists. The human spirit and it’s yearning for beauty is a fine fine thing. Thanks for sharing your story.

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