Ruth and Imogen: poetry for Ruth Asawa by Anne Whitehouse

Ruth and Imogen


When I married Albert Lanier
and we moved to San Francisco,
it was as if we leapt 
into an entirely new existence
that was nothing like our families.

All my life, I’ve been blessed 
with mentors—my teachers 
in the public schools in Norwalk, 
the Disney cartoonists at Santa Anita,
my teachers at Rohwer and in Milwaukee
and Black Mountain College.

It was the same in San Francisco.
Just when I needed her
and I didn’t know it, 
Imogen showed up.

We met through her son, Rondal,
a photographer hired by Albert’s firm.
By then we’d been in San Francisco 
for over a year. Albert’s hopes of working 
for himself hadn’t panned out, and I’d given 
birth to our twins, Xavier and Aiko.

When Albert praised Rondal’s work,
Rondal replied, “You must meet my mother.”
One afternoon soon after that, the doorbell rang. 
I answered it with a baby on each arm. 
A woman with wispy white hair
stood framed by the doorway, 
bearing a jar of Satsuma plum jam 
made from the fruit of her own tree.

She wore a cotton print dress
and a cable-knit sweater. 
Her black lace-up shoes were sprinkled 
with white construction dust 
from work in the street.
Before she entered my house,
she wiped her shoes with a handkerchief. 

That was how I met Imogen Cunningham.
A Rolleiflex hung from a leather strap
around her neck, its two vertical lenses
like Cyclops’ eyes. That day
she did not take pictures,
but a few months later I wrote to Celia,
my friend in Milwaukee:

A photographer came to photograph
a piece of wire sculpture
and took pictures of the babies.
We saw the proofs last week,
and they are very good.
She has a brief and biting tongue 
and all of her senses are alertly attuned
to react instantaneously.

Although I was 24 and she was 67,
Imogen and I became instant friends.
She championed me when art critics 
labeled me a housewife, and my sculptures 
were dismissed as crafts.

She said my history drew her to me.
One of her closest friends
was a Japanese artist and architect
who’d also been interned at Santa Anita.
She had kept his belongings safe 
for him until after the war. 

Imogen had three sons, including twins.
That was another bond between us.
For years she’d struggled to be artist, 
wife, and mother. Her husband, Roi Partridge, 
couldn’t bear her success. After they married, 
she closed her Seattle studio.

In San Francisco, she made delicate close-ups
of flora and fauna in her backyard garden.
They were exhibited and celebrated,
and her career was relaunched.
While she was in New York 
on assignment for Vanity Fair, 
Roi filed for divorce in Reno. 

Imogen was soured on men and marriage. 
When she learned I was using 
my married name to exhibit my work, 
she was appalled. Albert agreed.
It made no sense, he said, to have 
a French name and an Asian face.

Eventually Albert won Imogen over.
We made an agreement—
for the next three years
she would photograph my work.
In return Albert would make 
renovations to her house.

Imogen’ example helped me 
find my way as an artist and a mother.
She showed me how to transform 
frugality into meaningful elegance. 
She taught me that poverty 
is a state of mind, and you are poor 
only if you dwell on it.  
Her artistic spirit pervaded
every aspect of her existence,
enlivening her sons’ upbringing
and enriching their environment.

We had much in common—
dance, children, and gardens.
Introducing me to his mother,
Albert had said, “She’d rather dance
than eat.” Imogen, too, had a love
of movement. As a photographer,
she used light to create life.
In some of her pictures, my sculptures 
seem to grow and I to diminish.
They surround me, protect me, hide me.
The light strikes them, and I am in the shadows.
In others, I am at work, and they are in progress.
When I touch them, they come to life.

When I met Imogen, she was already old.
I used to amuse myself by imagining
what she was like when she was my age.
Appearances notwithstanding,
she was one of the most passionate 
people I’ve ever known. I look 
at her pictures of me and my work 
and my children, and I see love, 
concentration, pride, joy, astonishment, 
and sensuality. It’s as if I can see myself thinking.
How did she do it? I don’t know.
But I do know that she was fearless 
in the same way that I am.


To photograph some of Ruth’s sculptures,
I used a reverse-negative process 
to create a gelatin silver print,
in which they appear illuminated 
against a black background.
Reversing the process again, 
I printed a positive, where the dark sculptures 
cast shadows against a light backdrop. 

Growing up, I had a scientific bent.
At the University of Washington,
I majored in chemistry and made lantern slides
for the botany department, assembling
a visual catalog of its specimens
in the days before slide projectors.
A sheet of glass was sensitized
with a gelatin silver emulsion.
The plate was exposed to a negative,
resulting in a positive transparency 
valued for its complexity and tonal range.
I appreciated the subtlety of the process
and continued my work in that medium
when I went out on my own. 

I wrote Ruth’s recommendation
for a Guggenheim fellowship:
She is an unfailingly creative person
and an indomitable worker. 
Although young, she has maturity 
and a balance that few achieve.  
The more she undertakes,
the more she accomplishes.

I was certain she’d be selected,
but each time she applied,
she was passed over.
It’s true I was hardly objective.
After twenty years of fruitless efforts,
I confessed to the committee:
I may be too involved in her work
to be a cool observer,
as I have photographed much of the sculpture, 
making it mine as well as hers.

Success and failure
are matters of perspective,
and perspectives change.
When I met Ruth, I recognized
an old soul, despite her youth.
She credited my example,
but I think I learned more from her
than she from me. Her energy
and industry astonished me.
It came from her upbringing
as a farmer’s daughter.
She seemed to draw strength
from the earth up through her body.
She brought life into everything she touched,
and everything she made had a wholeness
and satisfaction to it. I worried 
that her wish to have a large family
and be an artist wouldn’t come true,
but she thrived in the ferment of family life, 
calming disorder and confusion,
radiant in her sense of concentration.
In the late 1950s, Ruth and Albert bought
a country property in Guerneville, 
near the Russian River, in Sonoma County,
an area they’d come to know and love 
through Marguerite Wildenhain,
a potter they’d befriended at Black Mountain,
who’d established a ceramics studio
at nearby Pond Farm. The Laniers’ property 
had an underground stream, a redwood grove,
a barn with aluminum siding where they lived,
and a shed where they kept their tools.
Some of my happiest times were my visits
to Guerneville. As old age advanced,
it meant more and more to me. 

Their marriage was a true partnership,
something I never had. Albert was steadfast,
and he had a gift, like Ruth, of inspiring people
to do what they never thought themselves capable of.
When he was renovating their house on Castro Street,
Albert enlisted the help of his two older sons, 
friends, schoolboys, a few union workers, 
odd jobbers, and alcoholics who stashed empties 
on the site that kept turning up for years.

He used recycled and repurposed materials
to transform the house from a two-bedroom
cottage with a loft for a pipe organ into a home 
with light and space for a family of eight, 
where Ruth’s sculptures hung from the ceiling
of the loft, as in a cathedral of art 
whose tall windows looked out to the bay, 
and there was an attic bedroom for the girls
and a dormitory for the boys, suspended
between the workshop-studio and backyard 
garden planted with rose, iris, wisteria, 
bleeding heart, rosemary, and columbine
in one of the sunniest spots in San Francisco.

Their home encouraged a creative family life
to which all contributed. In the summers
Ruth and her children picked apples 
in the orchards near Guerneville 
to pay for their school clothes. 
They labored in their garden,
growing fruits and vegetables. 
Ruth believed in drawing every day. 
“Whether or not you become an artist, 
drawing will make you better at whatever 
you choose to do,” she told her children.

She and her children carved two oversized 
redwood doors for the Castro Street house 
in a wavelike pattern of moving spirals 
that morph into shapes of a human face 
to conceal the doorknobs. Ruth drew 
the meandering design in white chalk, 
and the children helped her to carve 
and burnish it. Once an area was chiseled,
a small torch burned the rough edges smooth, 
raising the grain and softening the contours, 
and then it was cleaned with a wire brush.
Ruth allowed five-year-old Adam,
who was obsessed with bees, to poke 
“bee holes” into the wood. Participation 
was more important than perfection. 

Over the years Albert bought adjacent properties, 
removing the fences that divided their backyards, 
creating a family compound and communal garden. 
A nurturing energy seemed to radiate from their home,
expressed not only in their bountiful harvests 
shared with grateful recipients like me, 
but in their abiding concern for their community.

As a student in the Norwalk public schools,
Ruth took dance, music, and art classes 
taught by working artists. By the time 
her children started school in San Francisco,
that commitment to the arts was gone.
Ruth’s activism focused on arts education. 
She began a workshop in her children’s school
that grew to a city-wide initiative and led
to the founding of a public arts high school.

The exuberant mermaids nursing their babies
in her Ghirardelli Square fountain 
were scorned by the landscape architect.
He would have preferred a phallic tower  
spraying water forty feet high.
For once the male vision didn’t triumph. 
When she designed the fountain
with its gentle mists and looping jets of water,
its sinuous plants and sea creatures,
and delicate webbed tails
of the mermaids and merbabies,
Ruth said she was thinking of children 
and chocolates, and of the Little Mermaid 
in Copenhagen, another city by the sea,
and of wanting her mermaids not to be as lonely.

More enigmatic was the sculpture 
we created together of a young girl
on the cusp of adolescence
with slim flanks and bare breasts.
She has assumed the posture of Venus de Milo.
Her pelvis is tilted, and her weight rests
on her straight right leg,
while her left knee is bent.

We called her “The Hair Skirt,”
because she is wearing a pleated miniskirt
I made of photo-sensitized linen
printed with multiple images 
of my “Phoenix Recumbent,”
a reclining female nude
with flowing blond hair.
Using surgical gauze and plaster, 
Ruth made a life-cast of ten-year-old Addie 
and painted her gray. 
She is not only missing arms,
but a head as well.

Without any arms, Venus de Milo
is helpless to prevent the loose cloth
she wears from slipping past her hips.
In a moment it will fall, 
and her full nakedness will be revealed.

Not so our girl. Her miniskirt 
is secured by an elastic waistband.
Her hem skims the bottom of her butt.
She is both sexy and demure,
seductive and forceful.
Our sculpture created a minor sensation
when it was exhibited
in “U.S.A. in Your Heart.”
Mine was the only photograph
not mounted on a wall—
two women, one older and the other old,
channeling youth, having a bit of fun.

Anne Whitehouse is the author of six poetry collections Meteor Shower (2016) is her second collection from Dos Madres Press, following The Refrain in 2012. She is the author of a novel, Fall Love, as well as short stories, essays, features, and reviews. She was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and lives in New York City. You can listen to her lecture, “Longfellow, Poe, and the Little Longfellow War” here.

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