Gone are the days when picture book biographies are written only about so-called household names. More and more authors are choosing to write about lesser-known contributors to science, culture, the arts, social sciences, and much more—some in refreshing and even unconventional ways—and it is a beautiful thing about children’s literature today. Case in point is A Life Made by Hand (coming to shelves in early September), Andrea D’Aquino’s graceful homage to the artistic life of Ruth Asawa. “This is the story of an artist you may have never heard of,” we read on the first page.
Asawa, who died in 2013, was a sculptor—most notably of wire. She was born in California into a family of Japanese descent. Andrea K. Scott of the New Yorker has described Asawa’s sculptures as “diaphanous wonders, crocheted out of wire” and also wrote that the artist upends the "white-male hit parade.” D’Aquino’s tribute is a welcome addition to the books that tell us about the sculptor’s life; you may have never heard of Asawa, as D’Aquino suggests, because—just as Scott points out in her piece—her work, along with the work of so many other female artists of her generation, has been marginalized.
D’Aquino chooses to focus entirely for this book on Asawa’s singular vision, the first half of the book on her childhood and the unique way in which she saw the world. On the book’s first spread, for instance, we read that she worked with her hands on a farm and that she carefully observed everything around her, wondering about shapes in nature. How does a spider make its web? she thought, while gazing at a spider hanging from its fragile creation. We read details, such as that she often liked to examine drops of water in her gardens and puzzle over how light shone through them. With busy hands, she would stop to make wire animals and fold paper to create shapes. She would even draw in the dirt with her feet. Though her parents sent her to formal lessons (in calligraphy), the focus is very much on her farm work and how she found beauty in the delicate shapes in nature. Both her mind and her hands were always at work.
What D’Aquino does not include here are the painful years of internment, though she addresses this in the book’s backmatter. In 1942, Asawa and her family were sent to a detention center in New Mexico. They were then later relocated to internment camps in California and Arkansas. This omission was a deliberate choice on the part of the author, who spoke with Asawa’s daughters while writing this book. D’Aquino writes at the book’s close:
“The time is overdue for Asawa’s contributions to twentieth-century art to be considered on
their own merits, not only in context of her life story. I have honored her family’s wish
that this book celebrate Asawa’s life without allowing the darker facts of her internment
to overshadow her art. That history is addressed below, so that it may be given the
appropriate weight in a deeper conversations that the topic so deserves.”
The book’s second half covers Asawa’s studies at Black Mountain College with such luminaries as Merce Cunningham, Josef Albers, and Buckminster Fuller. “Ruth was eager to learn from interesting people around her,” we read, D’Aquino paying tribute to those who greatly influenced the growth of Asawa’s artistic vision. It was a local craftsman in Mexico who taught Asawa how to weave using wire.
One of the book’s final spreads includes mention of Asawa’s children, but the focus remains on her artistic output. The final two spreads include depictions of some of her intricate wire sculptures, hanging for museum-goers to see: “Now it was time for other people to look closely and wonder, ‘How did she make that?’”
D’Aquino renders these highly stylized collage illustrations via charcoal and colored pencil with hand-painted and monoprinted papers. The spreads in the book’s first half are especially beguiling, as we see the geometric wonders in nature that fascinated the young artist—lots of looping lines, intricate patterns, and angular shapes. As we read about her time in school and as an adult artist, D’Aquino’s artwork becomes increasingly abstract, relying more on shapes, color, and form to communicate Asawa’s unique vision.
In the same New Yorker piece (written in 2017), Scott also writes that the attention now finally given to Asawa’s work (six years ago, one of her sculptures sold at Christie’s for nearly 1.5 million dollars) “comes at a critical time in our country, as the policies of the current Administration challenge the undeniable fact that the United States is a nation of immigrants.” Indeed. Two years later, we can say the same. It’s another reason to welcome to shelves what the Kirkus review calls a “distinctive biography [that] brims with artistic vison.”
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
A LIFE MADE BY HAND. Copyright © 2019 by Andrea D'Aquino. Illustration above reproduced by permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, New York.