Ruth Duckworth transformed clay by evoking the natural world

Artist’s work on display at UChicago's Smart Museum of Art and Regenstein Library

Ruth Duckworth wanted to leave Europe for the U.S. for two reasons. As a deep nature lover, she hoped to see the Grand Canyon. As an artist pushing the boundaries of ceramic art, she wanted to make bold, risk-taking sculpture. She arrived at UChicago in 1964 intending to stay for one year and spent the next 50 accomplishing both goals.

The Smart Museum of Art exhibition, “Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity,” explores the artist’s work and life, centering her relationship to the natural world. Open until Feb. 4, the exhibition contains nearly 60 sculptural works made by Duckworth between 1966 and 2005. Visitors will discover large-scale clay murals, delicate figurines and earthy vessels—some of which have rarely, or never, been publicly exhibited.

The exhibition focuses on Duckworth’s nearly five-decade career in Chicago, where she was profoundly influenced by her time at UChicago. Her interactions with geophysicists like Prof. Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita—known as “Mr. Tornado”—and an emerging environmental movement changed her work forever.

“Life as a Unity” also marks the arrival of a new public art piece, Duckworth’s “Clouds Over Lake Michigan” (1976), to its new home at UChicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library. Thanks to a generous gift from Cboe Global Markets, visitors to the 1st floor reading room will encounter a 240-square-foot ceramic mural depicting an aerial view of the tip of Lake Michigan and surrounding landscape.

“Clouds Over Lake Michigan” is the second Duckworth large-scale mural to call UChicago’s campus home. Visitors passing through the foyer of the Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences are enveloped by “Earth, Water, Sky” (1968), which covers all four walls and the ceiling.

The title of the exhibition, “Life as a Unity,” was inspired from a quote from Duckworth. “I think of life as a unity. This unity includes mountains, mice, rocks, trees, and women and men. It is all one lump of clay.”

A force of nature

Ruth Windmüller Duckworth was born in Germany in 1919. A sickly child, she spent lots of time drawing alone in her room. As Hitler rose to power, Duckworth was forced to flee to England. She spent grueling wartime years working in a munitions factory and later as a gravestone carver.

After the war, Duckworth began building a career as a ceramicist—no easy feat in an era where working with clay was considered “craft” mainly reserved for making pots. However, Duckworth insisted on making serious sculpture.

In 1964, Duckworth was invited to teach at UChicago’s Midway Studios where she would teach ceramics for 13 years. In 1966, at her first U.S. solo exhibition at the Renaissance Society, Duckworth met ceramics collector Julian Goldsmith, dean of geophysical sciences.

“This passion that she had for the natural world couldn’t have intersected better with what was happening in the geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago,” said exhibition curator Laura Steward. “This was the Satellite Era—the beginning of satellite views of Earth taken from outer space, which were important for the launching of the environmental movement.”

UChicago’s Geophysical Sciences Department had formed a few years earlier, merging the old geology and meteorology departments to reflect the rapidly changing field. The nascent department also needed a new building.

Goldsmith commissioned Duckworth to make a ceramic installation for the atrium of the newly constructed Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences. In search of inspiration, Duckworth thumbed through books and riffled in department drawers. Among the charts and shells, she discovered the photography of meteorologist Fujita, known for creating the Fujita Scale for tornado severity.

“She got very excited about his aerial photographs of clouds and diagrams he made,” Steward said. “We see strong traces of Fujita’s influence in the way she pictured clouds in all of her work.”

The resulting installation, “Earth, Water, Sky” (1968), fundamentally changed the trajectory of her career and her art. “She herself said all her work could be put in pre- or post-geomorphological time,” Steward said.

Life as a Unity

When Steward arrived at UChicago in 2017 as curator of public art, her first encounter with “Earth Water, and Sky” both surprised and delighted her. The piece sparked her interest in the artist, leading to years of research and a reexamination of Duckworth’s legacy.

The Smart Museum exhibition, and its focus on Duckworth’s relationship with environmentalism, grew from Steward’s research and accompanying UChicago course “Ruth Duckworth and Ceramics in Chicago.” Students spent the winter of 2021 framing and reframing Duckworth’s work through various art movements and critiques to understand the artist who spent much of her life as an outsider.

“I never felt like Ruth was chasing the art style of the day,” said John Himmelfarb, a Chicago artist who assisted Duckworth in creating “Clouds.” “She knew she wanted to make Duckworths and she didn’t get distracted. She was very focused on continuing to produce day in and day out.”

While conducting archival research for class, Kendra Thornburgh-Mueller, AB’24, helped make the connection between Fujita’s anvil cloud formations to the small mushroom shapes that skate across several of Duckworth’s large-scale works including “Clouds.” Shapes Himmelfarb made under Duckworth’s careful instruction. Ultimately the class settled on centering the artist’s deep love, and concern, for nature.

“You almost see in her work as though she herself were a natural force,” Steward said. “That she is taking on erosion, kettle holes and cloud formations, and performing these forces upon her work. She’s not so much making an illustration of clouds over Lake Michigan, but more coexisting with it.”

Visitors to the exhibition will see the breadth of organic shapes and influences as they walk around the raised platforms that hold dozens of stoneware and porcelain pieces—from Duckworth’s famed round “Mama Pots,” to tall organic forms, to large murals that highlight her enduring love of clouds and craters.

“Ceramics is having a moment in the field, but especially at the University,” Steward said. “And that’s really Ruth’s legacy.”

— Visit “Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity” at the Smart Museum of Art until Feb. 4.

— Visit “Clouds Over Lake Michigan” at the Joseph Regenstein Library, 1st floor reading room. Visitors without a UChicago ID are welcome and may get a visitor pass at Regenstein Library’s entry desk.