Ruth Duckworth’s ‘Clouds Over Lake Michigan’ will have new home at UChicago

Gift allows majestic artwork to be installed on campus where artist was introduced to Chicago

In 1974, executives at Dresdner Bank thought they would find an up-and-coming young male sculptor to create a mural for the German financial institution’s Chicago office. Ruth Duckworth got the job instead.

When the resulting work, Clouds Over Lake Michigan, is installed in its new home in the first-floor reading room of the Joseph Regenstein Library on the University of Chicago’s campus this year, the acquisition will be a homecoming of sorts. Its creator spent many years on campus, making important contributions to her field and the University.

The mural comes to UChicago thanks to a generous gift from Cboe Global Markets. The global financial exchange operator first took possession of Clouds Over Lake Michigan when Dresdner Bank closed its Chicago offices in 1984 and Cboe moved the piece to its then-headquarters at 400 S. LaSalle. In 2021, Cboe relocated its headquarters from LaSalle Street to the newly renovated Old Post Office, and in 2022 moved its trading floor to the Chicago Board of Trade Building. 

Without enough uninterrupted wall space to allow Cboe to bring the massive Clouds Over Lake Michigan with them, the artwork needed a new home. Eager to do right by its creator, Cboe contacted the Duckworth Estate, who decided that due to the artist’s significant relationship with the University, UChicago should be approached first.

“For nearly 40 years, Clouds Over Lake Michigan greeted our associates and trading floor members on a daily basis and, as such, has been well-loved by many in the Cboe community,” says Marc Magrini, Vice President of Cboe Facilities. “Cboe is proud of its Chicago roots, and we are excited that this artwork can remain in the city it was created to honor.”

The University was delighted by the offer and immediately began making plans to welcome Clouds Over Lake Michigan to its new home in the heart of its Hyde Park campus. An exhibition also will open in September at the Smart Museum of Art, titled Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity.

“UChicago has a fine collection of public art installed around its campus, including perennial favorite Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy and Jene Highstein’s newly installed Black Sphere,” said Laura Steward, Curator of Public Art, “but we have lacked a major piece for the Regenstein Reading Room until now.”

Cboe also has made a significant financial gift for installation, cleaning, conservation and research into the piece. Removing the work from Cboe was no easy task. The 65 tiles that make up the work were mortared into the wall and had to be painstakingly excavated. The mural is 9 feet tall and 23 feet wide.

Professional conservators are working to restore the piece to its original brilliance before it is placed in the Regenstein’s Reading Room. The piece will be partially visible from the main entrance of the Regenstein. Visitors are welcome and can visit the ID & Privileges Office or the Regenstein circulation desk to obtain a pass to see the work.

“Libraries like Regenstein are simultaneously places for intense study and research and sources of inspiration and community,” said Torsten Reimer, University Librarian and Dean of the University Library.

Four months to create grand mural

When Duckworth was commissioned by Dresdner Bank, she had just three weeks to create prototype designs. She created three, sent photographs of each to Munich, and the leaders opted for the piece with ties to the Chicago landscape.

Inspired by photos of Chicagoland and Lake Michigan taken from space, Duckworth said the piece reflects “Chicago as a pre-Columbian city” and pulls inspiration from a 12,000- mile trip she took across the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala. “And then there are different types of clouds,” said Duckworth. “There’s some clouds that look like hundreds, thousands of mushrooms.”

From building the maquette – the small, preliminary model that serves as a kind of first draft of a large-scale piece – to the final installation of Clouds Over Lake Michigan, Duckworth estimated she spent just four months on the project. Adding to the impressive achievement is that this was only Duckworth’s second large-scale mural.

A life spent creating art

Ruth Windmüller was born in 1919 in Hamburg, Germany. As Hitler grabbed power, the Nuremburg laws and her father’s Jewish heritage prevented Duckworth from attending art school in Germany and, ultimately, forced her to flee her country. 

Duckworth began her formal training at the Liverpool College of Art in 1936, after spending much of her girlhood drawing, often while confined to her bed by childhood illnesses.

By the time she arrived in England, her taste had expanded to other mediums: “I want to paint like Rembrandt, draw like Durer and sculpt like Michelangelo,” she told her instructors. They tried to make her choose just one, but Duckworth was rarely interested in doing what others thought she should.

In 1949, she married British sculptor Aidron Duckworth. The marriage later ended in divorce.

From 1956 to 1958, Duckworth attended London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts to study ceramics. She began working primarily with clay, at the time still considered a material used for crafts. Her determination and success in elevating clay to fine art is an example of her singular vision and dogged determination to do as she pleased, no matter what conventional wisdom had to say about it.

Duckworth arrived in Chicago from London to teach at UChicago’s Midway Studios in 1964. She had planned to stay for only a year, but she ended up living in the city for nearly 50 years.

Shortly after her arrival in the U.S., Duckworth had her first solo exhibition at the Renaissance Society, on the UChicago campus. Her work intrigued Julian Goldsmith, Dean of the Geophysical Sciences department, who was also an art collector.

He bought one of her pieces and ultimately commissioned her to create her first large-scale sculptural mural. Earth, Water, Sky is a massive, immersive piece that covers four walls and the ceiling of the Hines Geophysical Laboratory atrium.

Duckworth created a living and studio space in a former pickle factory in Pilsen and later a loft in Lakeview. She stopped teaching at UChicago in the late 1970s, but she remained in Chicago until her death in 2009 at age 90.

This story originally appeared on In Practice: The UChicago Arts blog.