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Ruth Asawa's philosophy on art is: "An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special." Seen here in 2002, the San Francisco artist died at age 87 on Monday. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group Archives)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Ruth Asawa, the celebrated Bay Area sculptor and art educator known to capture whimsy and wonder with her work, died Monday night. She was 87.

Asawa's public works have long contributed to the character of the Bay Area and her adopted hometown of San Francisco, from her Hyatt Fountain on Union Square to Andrea, the iconic Mermaid fountain in Ghirardelli Square. Asawa's work is part of the Oakland Museum of California's permanent collection.

"Her personal history is inextricably linked to the story of California, and her work is immediately recognizable for its grace and delicacy -- even when monumental in scale," said OMCA director Lori Fogarty. "She will be deeply missed, not only for her enormous contribution to American sculpture, but for her commitment to education and civic life in the Bay Area."

The de Young Museum, which honored Asawa with a career retrospective in 2006, has also dedicated the lobby area of its tower to an ongoing display of her pieces.

"Everyone who has experienced the de Young firsthand has really been struck by the sheer beauty of her works, and great art is always the best argument for an artist's legacy," said Timothy Burgard, curator of American art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "Not only was she a ... hometown hero here, but she is also now an international figure. Her transparent wire mesh really redefined what a sculpture could be or should be."

Asawa was also a fierce advocate of art education in public schools. In 1968, she helped found the Alvarado Arts Workshop, which spread to many public schools throughout San Francisco. In 1982, she helped establish the San Francisco School of the Arts, which was later renamed in her honor.

"Art is for everybody," Asawa is quoted as saying on her website. "It is not something that you should have to go to the museums in order to see and enjoy. When I work on big projects, such as a fountain, I like to include people who haven't yet developed their creative side -- people yearning to let their creativity out. I like designing projects that make people feel safe, not afraid to get involved."

Born on Jan. 24, 1926 in the Southern California town of Norwalk, Asawa was the fourth of seven children of Japanese immigrants. Her parents were truck farmers who were prohibited from owning land or applying for citizenship due to discriminatory state laws, according to her biography on her website.

As a child, Asawa did farm work with her family and attended both public school and a Japanese cultural school where she learned calligraphy and her parents' native language. While in school, Asawa was praised at an early age for her artistic abilities, winning contests to have her work put on display.

In 1942, as the federal government began to intern hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, Asawa's father was arrested by the FBI. He was separated for six years from the rest of her family, who was initially housed in stables at the Santa Anita racetrack before being sent to an internment camp in Rohwer, Ark.

During her time in the internment camps, Asawa continued drawing and learned from older internee artists. She also completed high school in the camp in Arkansas and won a scholarship to the Milwaukee State Teachers College.

Despite completing all of her classes, Asawa was denied teaching credentials after she was told she would not be able to get a teaching job due to lingering anti-Japanese prejudices.

Asawa began classes at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, according to her biography. There, she met her husband, architect and designer Albert Lanier.

The couple moved to San Francisco shortly after they were married in 1949, believing the city to be more tolerant of mixed-race marriages. They had six children.

Asawa served on the San Francisco Arts Commission and on the board of trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. She also received honorary doctorates from San Francisco State University, the San Francisco Art Institute and California College of the Arts.

"She is being written back into our history, but then again, she was always there," said Burgard. "She really was an exceptional human being."

In addition to her daughter Addie, Asawa is survived by her children Xavier Lanier, Aiko Cuneo, Hudson Lanier and Paul Lanier. Her son Adam Lanier predeceased her.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this story. Contact Katie Nelson at knelson@bayareanewsgroup.com, and follow her at Twitter.com/katienelson210.