Ruth Duckworth began her long and idiosyncratic career as a sculptor at Liverpool College of Art in 1936 at the age of 17, after being forced to flee her native Germany as Hitler gained power. This was the beginning of a circuitous route as a professional artist, which would ultimately enable her to become one of the twentieth century's most innovative and boundary–crossing sculptors. Eventually she would make her name as a master ceramicist, however, she would continue to use clay sculpturally, resisting the division between art and craft.
At the height of the war, she moved to Manchester and made her living performing puppet shows and carving puppet heads. After two years she briefly stopped carving and joined the war effort by working at two munitions factories in Manchester. At the end of World War II she moved to London, attended Kennington School of Art for a year to learn stone carving, and then worked carving stone for almost a decade. In the 1950s she started experimenting with simple clay sculptures and, at the recommendation of Lucie Rie, she decided to attend the prestigious Central School of Arts and Crafts to learn ceramics. Inspired by the abstract simplified forms of Cycladic sculpture at the British Museum and Henry Moore’s sculptures of fluid, semi–abstracted human bodies, she used clay sculpturally, creating unconventional and organic vessels and forms. By 1964 she had earned a reputation as a ceramicist in London and held several exhibitions at Primavera, a fine arts and craft gallery.
It was at this time that the University of Chicago called and offered Duckworth a one–year teaching position at Midway Studios. At the age of 46, Duckworth moved across the Atlantic to begin the most noteworthy chapter in her career. At her first show in the US with the Renaissance Society in January 1965, Julian Goldsmith, Chairman of the Geophysical Sciences Department, purchased one of her pieces, and almost immediately afterward she secured the commission for the ceramic mural, Earth, Water, Sky. The scale and duration of the project would ultimately convince her to stay in Chicago. Her early training in wood and stone sculpture and disinterest in conventional uses of clay propelled her down a path that threw into question the division between art and craft. Even after leaving the university in the 1970s, she worked out of her studio in Lakeview and continued to produce works that ranged from monumental sculpture to delicate vessels until her death in 2009 at the age of 90. From her large murals like Earth, Water, Sky (1969) to her small wall reliefs such as Untitled (1972) at the Smart Museum of Art, she demonstrated that not only is clay a viable medium for sculpture, but also that art and craft are not necessarily separate categories.
Written by Tessa Handa, a doctoral student in Art History
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