Andrea D’Aquino has long been struck by photographs of Ruth Asawa, the late Japanese-American artist known for her hand-knit, gravity-defying wire sculptures. Recently, D’Aquino, a collage artist who regularly contributes to The New York Times, observed parallels between Asawa’s story and the current political climate. As a child, Asawa and her family were detained at internment camps in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and after her release, her efforts to become an art educator in Wisconsin were obstructed by the Milwaukee State Teachers College due to her ethnicity. “Just a few years later, she enrolled at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, surrounded by legendary characters such as painter Josef Albers, architect Buckminster Fuller, and dancer Merce Cunningham,” D’Aquino says, noting they later became her mentors and friends. “It’s such an unlikely story.” D’Aquino decided to capture the sculptor’s personal history in the book A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa (Princeton Architectural Press), out September 4. While the publisher’s press release says it’s for ages five to eight, D’Aquino’s narrative, focused on Asawa’s interpretations of the world, appeals to every reader.
The book’s collages were made from hand-painted and mono-printed paper, and drawn elements in graphite, colored paper, and oil pastel. D’Aquino chopped up and scanned the results. “It’s not your typical children’s book, where you have to be consistent with your character’s [appearance],” she says. “[Asawa’s] estate pushed me to represent Ruth”—one collage incorporates a photo of her face—as well as “the philosophy Albers taught her, called matière, which challenged artists to use materials in unexpected ways.” In this sense, D’Aquino is the perfect one to illustrate Asawa’s life.
As she composed the book, she spoke with two of Asawa’s six children via Skype. They believed their mother’s story should not be told in a flat, linear way but should instead be imbued with her spirit. “Ruth always encouraged children to do things themselves, and learn that way,” D’Aquino says. In turn, she included a paper-folding activity at the back of the book and devoted full spreads to Asawa’s mentors, signaling their importance to the sculptor’s creative development. “A lot of people don’t realize Ruth wasn’t just someone making these traditional woven things at home—she studied under some of the greatest progressive thinkers of her time,” D’Aquino says. “That was most important to her kids, to place her in the context of those individuals: Ruth’s name has always been there, just not on the same level as theirs. But she was very much their contemporary.”