Earth, Water, Sky marks a turning point in Duckworth’s idiosyncratic career. She started learning ceramics after a decade of working as a stone carver, which contributed to her interest in a freeform aesthetic as opposed to utilitarian dishware. But it wasn’t until her move from London to Chicago and the commission from Goldsmith that she had the opportunity to work at such a large scale and in an architectural setting. She meticulously researched the forms, colors, and textures she would use for the mural and presented two models to the University before a combination of her two designs was approved. For the final work, she painstakingly formed, glazed, and fired 400 individual tiles weighing in total about 4000 pounds, a sheer technical feat. In consultation with Colburn and the building engineers, she devised a way to incorporate built-in light fixtures into her cloud formations that would cast dramatic light across the varied ridges and textures of the mural’s surface.
After three years of planning and labor, she assembled and adhered the 400 tiles with epoxy to the walls and ceiling of the vestibule in the new Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences. Overall the large scale and dense amount of variation and detail within the enclosed space create a truly immersive environment. This mural would have a lasting impact on all her subsequent work. In a 1969 Ceramics Monthly article, when predicting the future direction of her work, Duckworth is quoted as saying, “this would include a greater use of my work on a larger scale in an architectural setting.” Four years later in a paper she gave at the University of Chicago she reflected:
I was very lucky because the three words given to me by Julian Goldsmith as possible subject matter: earth, water, sky fitted in so well with my predilections. He also gave me a book on geomorphology that had such an influence on me that I can date some of my work by calling it pre–geomorphology and post–geomorphology periods.
Geomorphology, the science of landforms, utilizes both a close inspection of the substances of earth and also aerial views of earth’s surface. Duckworth creatively interpreted both perspectives of the earth in Earth, Water, Sky and the other two murals she would later complete in the Chicago area. All three combine a close view of sediment or earth strata in brown, textured glazes with a sense of overlooking cloud patterns or elevation rings. Even her subsequent large stoneware sculptures and smaller porcelain works feature similar fluid undulating lines and biomorphic forms.
The images of the earth’s surface that inspired Duckworth’s work were made possible by recent developments in air and space technology. With the launch of Sputnik I in 1957 and Vanguard I in 1958, the space age began and the new technology captured a perspective of earth from space that had never been possible before. Duckworth noted that, in addition to geomorphological books and weather satellite images, she referenced Mariner 9 photographs looking back at earth. In Earth, Water, Sky, the glass filled craters, glazed–brown clay ridges, and the symmetrical cinder cone shape of Mt. Fuji present an image of a planetary surface that had been almost unimaginable just a decade prior. These aerial views of earth on both the walls and ceiling, interspersed with deep views of the earth’s layers, together create a totally immersive yet disorienting effect.
This combination of subterranean and aerial views of earth parallels the changes happening in the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago during this time. On July 1, 1961 the University merged the geology and meteorology departments, a move that combined the study of earth and sky. The newly expanded department, spurred on by the rapid technological advancements of the 1960s, launched new experiments funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. The urgency and interest with which the government and funding sources turned toward scientific research prompted the University to prioritize the creation of a new Geophysical Sciences building. For the design of the new 5–million–dollar building, Colburn incorporated a central utilities core that allows each laboratory space to adapt to fast–paced technological developments.
Although Colburn’s design broke from traditional architectural idioms, like so many other architects during this socially tumultuous decade, he also chose to incorporate reinterpretations of gothic elements seen throughout the campus. Most notably, brutalist spires that are also functional ventilation shafts adorn the the flat grey modular sides. In contrast to Colburn’s severely brutalist and functional architecture, Earth, Water, Sky, is a fantastical and immersive environment of geophysical forms. Although both Earth, Water, Sky and Hinds are forward–looking and hopeful responses to the 1960s, the mural seems to be an antidote to the cool rigidity of the exterior architecture. Earth, Water, Sky, is playful, rough, and lyrical, an apt entrance to a department that explores the forces and substances of the earth—as Goldsmith rightly foretold, when entering the building one would “pass through its essence.”