An illustrated Ruth Asawa, an Asian woman with straight, grey, shoulder-length hair pulled into a ponytail, sits among several of her wirework pieces as she shapes another into something circular and three-dimensional
The cover of Ruth Asawa: An Artist Takes Shape

Ruth Asawa – An Artist Takes Shape

Writer/Artist: Sam Nakahira
Publisher: Getty Publications

Ruth Asawa’s art is about space. The lines of a piece tell a story, but the space between and within adds to and builds upon it. An outline is so much more than what it appears to be at first glance.

Sam Nakahira’s new graphic novel, Ruth Asawa – An Artist Takes Shape, seeks to mirror Asawa’s art with her own and the narration. It’s sparse, leaving room for more, which works… to a point. 

If you’re familiar with Asawa’s life and/or the Japanese internment camps, this book can work as something of a reminder. There isn’t any real depth or analysis to it. It doesn’t tread new ground. If anything, this works as a primer. It lays some groundwork, and someone who picks it up not knowing who Ruth Asawa is will get the basics. Hopefully the emotive art inspires them to do research and see more.

And the art is emotive. The simple style works well, and Nakahira knows how to make just a few lines speak of depression, anger, or sadness. You can feel the pressure and the Asawa family felt as they were forced from their home, and the relief Ruth found when she escaped into art. It takes us from her early childhood until just before she started to find success in museums and galleries, which is to say it shows how she takes shape.

Multiple comic panels depicting a young Ruth Asawa, a Japanese-American girl with chin-length black hair, and her family as they burn their beloved belongings to try to seem less threatening to a post-Pearl-Harbor America
Ruth Asawa and her family desperate to prove they’re Americans too.

Her story, Ruth’s story, is something that needs telling not just because it informs people of the background behind the art, but it reminds us how easy it is to suddenly become the Other, the enemy, even when you’ve done nothing wrong. Art is about understanding and seeking understanding; hatred has no room for that.

I think this book would do well in art gallery gift shops especially for those who see a piece of Asawa’s art and want to learn more about her. It also wouldn’t be out of place in middle-school libraries as an introduction to how early one can start becoming an artist.

This graphic novel is a great first step in getting to know who Ruth Asawa was and what her art was about, and Sam Nakahira should be proud of her work.

Ruth Asawa – An Artist Takes Shape was written and illustrated by Sam Nakahira, and published by Getty Publications. It can be found at all major book retailers.

Ruth Asawa – An Artist Takes Shape is available to order via The Getty Museum Store.