Sculpture: Ruth Asawa, Wendy Walgate, & Alexander Calder

We start a lot of classes by asking the students if they have ever heard of the type of art we are talking about that day, and sometimes they have, but most of the time they haven’t. This was a class where some students raised their hands quickly to name museums or sculpture gardens they had been to but the more we talked about what made a sculpture the more students raised their hand and said they had seen a sculpture or statue just the other day or there was one near their house. Sculptures are everywhere; even in towns or cities without a lot of public art there are sure to be statues of people, lions on either side of the library steps, or a monument or two.

Our first artist is Ruth Asawa, who was born in California in 1926 to parents who were first generation immigrants from Japan. She grew up on a farm that grew fruits and vegetables and worked there before and after school every day. Though her parents were farmers, because of discriminatory and racist laws in the United States, they were not allowed to own the land they farmed or to become American citizens.

Asawa often argued with her siblings and was given solitary tasks on the farm as punishment, though she enjoyed working alone on the farm because it gave her time to daydream. When she would ride on the backs of the trucks and wagons they used on their farm she would drag her toes in the dust and make shapes she later realized were in the art she did as an adult!

During WWII, because the United States was at war they decided to arrest and put into camps all people of Japanese descent because they thought they were spies for Japan. Asawa had never even been to Japan but because of the racism of the American government she and her family were interned in horse stables at a race track in 1942. At this camp Asawa learned how to draw from some artists, Tom Okamoto, Ben Tanaka, and Chris Ishii from Disney studios who were interned with her.

She lived at the camp until 1943 when she graduated from high school and left to study to become an art teacher at Milwaukee State Teacher’s College. However, she was unable to complete her student teaching requirements because of racism and hostility towards Japanese people in the schools she tried to teach in. Eventually she got married and decided to become an artist instead of an art teacher. She and he husband moved to San Francisco where they thought people might be more hospitable to an interracial couple.

Asawa and her husband had six children together and she would often stay up late at night and wake up early in the morning to work on her art while her children were asleep. She started by exhibiting her work in San Francisco and eventually gained more and more recognition and began exhibiting in the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

As Asawa became more popular she used her popularity to work for the social causes she cared about. She also helped create a public school for the arts in San Francisco which was renamed for her in 2010. In 2002 she helped create a Garden of Remembrance with other Japanese artists and landscape artists at San Francisco University using rocks where they brought boulders in from the ten different camps where Japanese Americans were interned.

Sculpture is like farming. If you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.

The work we focused on of Asawa’s was her crocheted wire sculptures. She said working with the wire and making sculptures this way was like “drawing in space.” The shapes she made with her sculptures came from things she saw in nature like spider webs, snail shells, and droplets of water.

An artist is not special. An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special

For our Ruth Asawa artwork we took inspiration from the Women’s Week Collective project done by Art Camp LA and Krisanne from the Making Table. For this project you need a balloon, some string, and either white glue or mod podge mixed with water.

We gave each student some pre-cut pieces of bakers twine, a small balloon that was blown up and tied, and a small bowl of white glue mixed with a tablespoon or so of water to make it thinner. The students dipped the strings in the glue solution and then placed them all over the balloon making sure they were glued down to it. They then brought the balloons home and when the glue dried they popped the balloon and took it out and had their own Asawa inspired sculpture!

If you have time you could do multiple balloons of different sizes and colors, and then hang them all on the same string to make a hanging sculpture of their own.

Our next artist is Wendy Walgate a Canadian artist currently based in Toronto. She has a 30 year background in printmaking and ceramics and has exhibited her work around the world.

For her current work she makes hundreds of ceramic animal figurines and stacks them in different containers like toy wagons, jewelry boxes, and baskets. She was inspired to make the figurines because growing up her aunt had a collection of ceramic animals on her mantle that she loved to look at.

L: An Unlessoned Girl R: The Very Pink of Perfection

Her work is also a commentary on the how people love to accumulate and hoard objects. She also uses molds to make the animals so they are identical to signify the mass production used to create so many things we use every day.

L: Cry Wolf Toy Box R: Envoy Chair II

For our Wendy Walgate project we used hot glue to create stacks of plastic animals. We got a large bag of animals from ebay but they can also be found at thrift stores and craft stores.

We gave each student 10 animals and a small bowl they could build their animal stack on. They then used hot glue, or got help from a teacher to use the hot glue, and made their stack of animals however they wanted to. They could also paint their statues after they were glued. As usual if you have more time we would suggest painting the animals before assembling them if you want more detailed paint but painting them after worked too.

Our last artist is Alexander Calder who was born in Pennsylvania in 1898. He came from a long line of artists — his mother, father, and grandfather were all artists. He was encouraged to be creative from a young age and he created his first sculptures when he was 11 as Christmas presents for his parents.

The brass duck sculpture seen above was a kinetic sculpture, meaning it moves, this one rocks back and forth when it is touched on the nose.

Though he was artistic he did not originally want to be an artist and studied engineering instead. After working as an engineer for a while he decided he preferred making art instead and was an artist for the rest of his life.

Calder is most famous for his Kinetic sculptures called Mobiles. He loved to see art move so he made art that could be moved purposefully with a fan or a motor but eventually he preferred to let them move with the breezes in a room.

Calder in New York in 1947

Some of his works are huge and take up entire rooms and some are smaller. They mostly use primary colors: red, yellow, and blue, or they use black or white. They are made of simple shapes and seemingly simple wire designs, however, they are not as simple as they appear. They are perfectly balanced so they look and move the way Calder wanted them to.

L: Calder looking at his piece “.125” in what is now JFK airport, 1957, R: Untitled, 1939

The Calder Foundation website has a few videos that were made of his art throughout his career if you want to see his Mobiles in motion. Work in Progress from 1968 is filled with shots of all the different types of mobiles he made throughout his career in motion.

For our Calder art we used wire, paper, foam, beads, pipe cleaners, and dowels to make our own moving mobiles.

Our wire and shapes were not quite as delicate as what Calder uses but we made sure to only use a few primary colors and simple shapes to balance our mobiles.

These projects are three very different forms of sculpture, gluing objects together, using papier mâché techniques with string instead of paper, and making kinetic mobiles. The students definitely expected some type of clay sculpture but we wanted to expand the definition of what a sculpture could be and use mediums they might not expect to use, and artists they may not have heard of.