A Transcendant Sculptural Legacy: Ruth Duckworth

Ruth Duckworth, Earth, Water, Sky, 1967–1968, Ceramic mural, 400 square feet, covering four walls and the ceiling, Located in the entrance to the Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences, The University of Chicago, Presented to the University in honor of Jane H. Sherr by the Leonard J. Horwich Family. Photo by Michael Tropea. © Estate of Ruth Duckworth.



This fall the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago presents the monographic exhibition: Ruth Duckworth: Life as Unity (September 21, 2023–February 4, 2024). The show focuses on the artist’s sculptural work, and features nearly 60 objects made between 1966–2005, some of which are on loan from close friends of the artist and have never been publicly exhibited. 

In the documentary from the early aughts by Karen Carter, Ruth Duckworth: A Life in Clay, the octogenarian artist says “I don’t think everyone has a destiny. It’s more haphazard than that.” This rings true for an artist whose sculptural work demonstrates a deep fascination with nature, geomorphology and the interconnectedness of the natural world as a whole.

“Like many women working in craft media at the mid-century, Ruth Duckworth (1919–2009) did not receive the critical consideration her work merits,” said Laura Steward, Curator of Public Art. “This exhibition and accompanying catalogue are the result of the growth of ‘eco-criticism’ in the field of art history. This novel critical framework allows us to center the artist’s relationship with the natural world, which in Duckworth’s case was profoundly influenced by the ‘Satellite Era’ and her engagement with geophysical sciences at UChicago.”


Ruth Duckworth, Untitled (Wall Sculpture), 1970, Porcelain, 33-3/4 x 17-1/2 x 5-1/2 inches, Courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Duckworth and Salon 94. © Estate of Ruth Duckworth.


In 1964, Duckworth came to Chicago after receiving an invitation to teach at University of Chicago’s Midway Studios. She planned to stay for only one year, but instead made Chicago her home. She lived in the city until her death in 2009. Although widely known as being a “British studio potter” (she attended art school in England to escape Hitler’s Germany, and lived there for nearly two decades before coming to the United States) her childhood in Hamburg and life and career in Chicago played important roles in shaping this artist.

The title of the exhibition derives from a quote by Duckworth, which evocatively captures the range of scale in which the artist worked as well as the common thread throughout her career. “I think of Life as a unity. This includes mountains, mice, rocks, trees, women, and men. It’s all one big lump of clay.” From the magnitude of the mountains to the tiniest of creatures, Duckworth saw them as all connected. It is fitting then, that in addition to the exhibition, two of Duckworth’s massive murals will be available to the public for viewing throughout the exhibition. Clouds over Lake Michigan, originally commissioned in 1974 by Dresdner Bank for its Chicago office and was recently gifted to the University by Cboe Global Markets and installed at the Joseph Regenstein Library on the UChicago campus, and Earth, Water, Sky, commissioned in 1968 for the Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences. Both works are huge, and are in contrast with her sculpture, much of which can easily be held in one’s hands. 


Ruth Duckworth, Untitled, 1972, Stoneware, 17-1/4 x 19 x 3 inches, Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Gift of Margaret Fisher, 1967.24. © Estate of Ruth Duckworth.


With Life as Unity, Steward readdresses much of the artist’s work through the lenses of “eco-criticism” - focusing, in part, on new approaches of the natural sciences and environmental perspectives and activism of the 1960s. The exhibition draws connections between Duckworth and key figures at the University of Chicago and in Hyde Park such as Laura Fermi, who founded the Hyde Park committee for Cleaner Air and Professor of Meteorology Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita, whose photographs of clouds Duckworth first encountered when working on the commission Earth, Water, and Sky. 

When one enters the exhibition, they are met with nearly 30 objects in stoneware and clay – earthy-hued abstracted figures (some birdlike), vessels, pots, and nearly translucent porcelain sculptures  – the majority of which, like much of Duckworth’s pieces, are untitled. As the artist explained “titles pin people down [...] I want them to have their own ideas.” The presentation is punctuated by murals and wall sculptures many of which illustrate the influence of geomorphology on her work. Indeed as a result of the Satellite Era, Duckworth was able to view images from space of weather patterns. In the documentary, while standing in front of Clouds Over Lake Michigan she points out just some of the many different types of clouds she sculpted on the surface.


Portrait of Ruth Duckworth inside of Earth, Water, Sky, undated. The University of Chicago Archival Photographic Files, apf1-05879. Photo courtesy of Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.


Ruth Duckworth: Life as Unity shines a light on an artist with deep roots in Chicago and the UChicago community. Duckworth saw herself as “a survivor.” She said, “I survived Hitler, being a refugee, being poor several times in my life, being depressed - I have survived. I’ve had accidents that should have killed me and they didn’t.” She is undoubtedly survived by her own large body of work that, for us and for future generations, fortunately continues to reveal new threads of interconnectedness. It is, afterall, “all one big lump of clay.”


In conjunction with the exhibition the Smart Museum presents a series of free programs from tours, kiln crawls, and musical performances to family days and scholarly talks featuring faculty from UChicago’s Department of Geophysical Sciences and the Divinity School. 

The accompanying catalogue features an introduction by exhibition curator, Laura Steward as well as essays and contributions by Abigail Winograd, Jack Schneider, and Kendra Thornburgh-Mueller. The catalogue is also fully illustrated with images of all the works in the exhibition, including new documentation of Clouds Over Lake Michigan in its new home in the 1st floor reading room of the Joseph Regenstein Library. 


Ruth Duckworth: Life as Unity

Smart Museum of Art

September 21, 2023 - February 4, 2024