Last week, we lost one of California’s most admired sculptors, and the first Asian American woman in the nation to achieve recognition in a male-dominated discipline. Ruth Asawa died at age 87 of natural causes at her home in San Francisco. Although Ms. Asawa achieved considerable fame for significant public works such as the Japanese American Internment Memorial in San Jose, she loved working with kids to create site-specific art that originated out of a dough made simply of flour, water and salt. Here is a story that ran in the Piedmont Post in 2007 about a delightful piece she made with the kids at Fairyland to honor the park’s 25th anniversary in 1975.

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The deYoung Museum has organized the first major retrospective of San Francisco sculptor Ruth Asawa, which continues through the end of the month. “Her name has long been familiar to area residents because of her tireless advocacy for community art projects and art education in public schools,” says John E. Buchanan, Jr., Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Imagine my surprise when we opened a storage closet at Fairyland only to find a Ruth Asawa-directed work of art that she created with scores of Bay Area kids. So how did this amazing piece come to be, why was it in a storage closet, and could we possibly bring it back for the kids to touch and enjoy?

The year was 1975, the 25th birthday of Children’s Fairyland.  “Magic 25” was a kid-focused, year-long celebration that included special visits from children from all over the world. A major highlight of the festivities was a project supervised by the great Ruth Asawa and her assistants that had kids creating a map of the park out of bread dough that was later transformed into nine plaster relief rectangular sculptures.

Kelly Jonick, an Oakland-based toymaker, was 11 years old at the time, and her mother, Marilyn O’Hare, was the legendary fairy of all arts and crafts at the park. “Mom took us to see Ruth Asawa’s cast bronze sculptured fountain at the Hyatt Hotel in Union Square,” she recalls. “I think she wanted to impress on us the importance of the project.”

Kelly, who, years later, can often be found at the park volunteering on weekends doing arts and crafts, remembers the undertaking well. “It was very low-tech, but I was impressed at the number of people who made it happen,” she recalls. Scores of kids, under Asawa’s supervision, molded icons of the park out of dough. Kelly herself re-created our clock slide, and a version of herself by the Humpty Dumpty Wall.

When the kids were done, dimensions of Kirkpatrick’s bakery’s ovens were analyzed, with masonite boards constructed to just fit inside them. The dough was then baked on the boards until it was hard, at which point a glue-like substance was poured over it. Then a rubber material (“which stank terribly”) was used, a reverse mold was created in Asawa’s studio, and the resulting plaster pieces (“which are heavier than heck”) were placed together at Fairyland, creating a sculptured wall. It was taken down during a period of construction 5-1/2 years ago, and put into storage.

Kelly has some thoughts on the matter. She thinks that the sculpture was displayed too high for kids to touch and explore. She’d like to see it brought back, but placed on a flat surface so that kids could really experience the surface, and play a “Where’s Waldo” game using the park’s landmarks. The sculpture is currently earth-toned; Kelly thinks it should be painted with brighter, more Fairyland-like colors.

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Now that Fairyland has a small (but extremely talented) art and restoration department, we need to look at a way to present the piece for all to enjoy. The weight and preservation of the panels is a real challenge, but one that inspires us. Because as famous as Ruth Asawa was, she still recognized the importance of teaching kids how to make art that represents their talents and worldview; a philosophy that we’re proud to continue.

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