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In Good Hands

Working from her studio in a former pickle factory in Ravenswood, world-famous ceramic artist Ruth Duckworth can make clay do just about anything.



In the spring of 1965, a few months after an exhibit of Ruth Duckworth's work opened at the Renaissance Society gallery in Hyde Park--her first showing in this country--the German-born ceramic artist was invited to the home of the chairman of the University of Chicago's geophysics department.

"He said, 'We're going to have a new building, and we asked this Canadian fellow to do a mural for us,'" she recalls. "I said, 'With me on the campus?' He said, 'Would you like to do it?' I said, 'Yes.' That was the total conversation--that was my commission then. So then I started getting nervous. I'd never made a mural before, and there were so many things I didn't know...but this was fascinating. I definitely wanted to do it."

Duckworth, who'd moved to Chicago from England the year before to teach at the university's fabled Midway Studios, hadn't intended to stay for more than a year. But the commission changed things. She arranged to have her two big dogs shipped here and got to work.

Three years later she unveiled what is still one of Chicago's best-kept secrets. In the vestibule of the Henry Hinds Laboratory for the Geophysical Sciences at 5734 S. Ellis, Duckworth covered four walls and a ceiling with more than 260 stoneware tiles, whose forms and patterns suggest the work's title, Earth, Water, and Sky. Inspired by weather-satellite images, elevation maps, and photographs of topographical features, she rendered the work in pale blues, greens, and browns. She even suspended porcelain clouds from the ceiling and fashioned the light fixtures in clay.

Duckworth went on to become a professor of fine arts at U. of C., a position she held until 1977, when she began devoting herself to making art full-time. She says, "I was told right early on when I was here teaching, 'Now when you want to settle down, don't settle in Chicago--you have to go east or west, but forget Chicago.' That's what I was told. But I decided, they need somebody, don't they? So I stayed. It turned out OK for me."

It's not generally known that Duckworth is still active in Chicago. For the last two decades the 83-year-old artist has maintained a home and studio in a two-story, 6,000-square-foot former pickle plant in the Ravenswood corridor, where she continues to push the boundaries of a medium that's traditionally associated with "crafts" and "pottery." In a career spanning a half century and dating to the formative years of the studio ceramics movement, Duckworth has become renowned for her innovative and versatile way of hand shaping clay, helping lay the foundation for fine-art ceramics. Her elegant, often sensuous works--ranging in scale from small abstract vessels to the wall at Hinds lab--evoke the human body, landscapes, animals, and other organic forms.

"To me, form is what matters," she says. "And form can matter in a small piece or a large piece....One of the reasons I stayed in America is that you can work large here. I love working large, maybe because I'm small."

Duckworth's five-foot stature casts a long shadow. She's influenced generations of artists and colleagues, including Bill Farrell, who taught ceramics at the School of the Art Institute for more than three decades before retiring earlier this year to make pottery full-time. "She was everybody's hero, and a model for a lot of folks, including myself," he says. "She rose above the normal object making that most ceramic artists do. It's difficult to rise above pottery to make architectural things and larger pieces of sculpture. She did all that." Farrell, who sometimes exhibited with Duckworth in the 1970s and '80s, says that the artist set an example with her work ethic as well. "She was a strong artist, a strong woman, and a hell of a strong worker. People admired that."

Another of her admirers is Dolores Fortuna, who shares a home and studio with Farrell and was a student of Duckworth's at the University of Chicago. Fortuna helped found the Fire Arts Complex, a defunct clay center in East Pilsen (with which Duckworth was affiliated), as well as the Oak Park ceramics gallery and workshop Terra Incognito before teaching at SAIC herself. "She's had a strong influence because of her European way of thinking about clay and form. She's had a different dialogue with art than what you find in many ceramics departments."

Duckworth regularly exhibits and sells in Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Japan, and her works are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, to name a few. In 1997 she received a lifetime achievement award from the American Craft Council, and last year she was honored with a Master of the Medium award from the James Renwick Alliance, which helps support the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery, an American crafts showcase. Next month at SOFA, Chicago's annual international exposition of sculpture and functional art, filmmaker Karen Carter will present the premiere of her documentary Ruth Duckworth: A Life in Clay. (It will show Saturday, October 26, at 1 and 3 PM, and is free with paid admission to the fair.) "She has lived such an incredible life--she's a survivor," says Carter.

Despite her accomplishments, Duckworth is virtually unknown within the broader context of contemporary art. "Ruth's work belongs more in the sculpture department than in the ceramics department," which tends to be "defined by utility and decorative arts traditions," says Jo Lauria, a California-based independent curator. (Three years ago Lauria organized the exhibition "Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Contemporary Ceramics, 1950-2000" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.) "But because clay is her chosen material, and ceramics remains in the margins of art history, her work has been underrecognized."

Outside of a few public commissions--including ceramic murals at the Chicago Board Options Exchange on South LaSalle and the Animal Care and Control Center on South Western--it's not easy to find Duckworth's work in her adopted hometown. Pieces owned by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art are currently in storage. She's represented by galleries in New York and New Mexico, but hasn't had a local dealer since the mid-1980s. "Chicago is just not a major collecting area for ceramics," says art consultant Thea Burger.

For the past 20 years, Burger, who maintains offices in Vermont and New York, has worked assiduously to raise Duckworth's profile. Reporters can't talk to the artist without first going through her. She works up to four days a week running the studio's business affairs, helping to arrange commissions, exhibits, interviews, and the occasional studio tour. "When I first met Ruth, she was only charging $200 for a porcelain cup," Burger says, incredulously. Today a similar piece fetches at least $5,500; larger pieces can command as much as $100,000.

Still, Burger would like the artist to receive more recognition for her work in Chicago. Burger has been "in discussion" with major local arts venues about launching a retrospective in late 2004 that would then travel to three other museums in the U.S. and Europe. In fact, Lauria recently left her position as LACMA's decorative-arts curator to organize the exhibition.

In the last decade or so, Duckworth has also been working increasingly with bronze, and she's trying to reshape her image into that of a sculptor rather than a ceramic artist. "There are many people who think, 'Oh, Ruth Duckworth is more about porcelain, beautiful small porcelains,'" she says. "But that's not what we want me to be known for."

Duckworth was a late bloomer. It's not that she didn't know what she wanted to do; she always felt she'd be an artist. But it took her years to settle on the material for which she's primarily known. Influenced by modernist sculptors like Henry Moore (whom she knew), Isamu Noguchi, and Constantin Brancusi, her career has been marked by a movement toward minimalism--a quest for what she calls "purity and simplicity."

Born in 1919 in Hamburg to a middle-class family, Ruth Windmüller was the youngest of five children. Her mother nearly died carrying her, and she was a small, sickly, and insecure girl who spent a lot of time in bed drawing. At school she was good at art and sports; she also liked biology. Her father, a Jewish lawyer born in Manchester, arranged for his wife and children to leave for England when the Nazis came to power, and in 1936 Duckworth sailed for Liverpool with jewelry sewn in her clothes. "I couldn't have gone to art school in Germany--I wouldn't have been allowed to," she says. "My sister was already married to an Englishman, so that's where I went." Other sisters followed. Duckworth's brother Hans, with whom she was especially close, was fleeing on a ship bound for Australia when it was sunk by a U-boat. "So that was the end of the person who was always going to look after me." Duckworth wouldn't set foot in Germany again until 1976, when she had a hugely successful show at a prominent Hamburg museum.

A plucky 17-year-old, "not very raw but ignorant in many ways," Duckworth enrolled in the Liverpool Art School. "I had this interview with the principal," she recalls, "and he said, 'Do you want to do drawing or painting or sculpture? Do you want to be an art teacher?' I said, 'I want to do drawing, painting, and sculpture.' And he said, 'You can't do that.' I said, 'But Michelangelo did that.' He said, 'Well, you make your own timetable then.' So I was nobody's student, really. Nobody took me very seriously, except the drawing teacher."

Duckworth finished her studies in 1940, but she had no idea of how to make a living. She didn't want to teach, and though her mother urged her to become a commercial artist she didn't want to do that either. "I had no qualifications." So she moved to Manchester and joined a Viennese puppet troupe, carving heads and staging shows. Eventually she and another member toured on their own, performing at schools throughout northern England. But she grew bored.

"Then I thought, well, I'm half-Jewish, I have to help beat Hitler," Duckworth says. For the next two years, from 1942 to '44, she worked in a Manchester munitions factory, making tools and gauges and polishing the dies used for casting bullets. Duckworth recalls it as the worst time of her life--the work was grueling, and she had neither the time nor energy to make art. "It was a great strain, and really almost impossible for me to do. It got on my nerves....I was constantly working with the shape of a bullet. I couldn't sleep--I was killing people. And then they had this big poster in the place saying, 'Every tool more is a German less,' which wasn't very helpful."

In 1944 Duckworth suffered a nervous breakdown, which finally got her out of the factory. In 1945 she moved to London, where she set up a studio in the home of a couple she'd met at the weapons plant. She still wasn't interested in choosing between painting and sculpture--until she saw an exhibit of pre-Columbian art and artifacts at the Royal Academy of Art. "That is the day I decided that sculpture does much more for me," she says. "I had a much stronger reaction to the 3-D spatial I dropped painting." She enrolled at the Kennington School of Art to learn stone carving, and from 1947 to 1950 worked as a tombstone engraver. "I was in the back room of the undertaker's," she says. "I did roses, ivy leaves--the decoration. I did it three days a week, just enough to survive, and I could have three or four days for my own work."

But Duckworth wasn't well. She was angry and self-destructive, and in 1946 she began weekly treatments at the London Clinic of Psychoanalysis. Her testy relationship with furniture designer Aidron Duckworth, whom she wed in 1949, didn't help matters. Analysis was "a very tough thing to go through--it's not something you do for fun," Duckworth says. "But it really did help."

Meeting Henry Moore, England's preeminent 20th-century sculptor, in 1950 also had an impact on Duckworth. She was inspired by Moore's simplified, abstracted figures in stone and bronze, and, like him, was drawn to the ancient and primitive sculpture collections at the British Museum. "I just phoned up and asked, 'Would it be all right if I came to see you?' I wasn't cheeky, but you have to be cheeky sometimes." Moore said yes, and she went up to his country estate in Perry Green, Hertfordshire, about 25 miles north of London, and had tea with him and his wife, Irina. "I'd taken two or three of my stone carvings in the taxi, and he looked at them and said, 'Quite interesting.'" In 1953--the final year of her analysis--Duckworth made her art-world debut at a London gallery, exhibiting mostly female figures rendered in wood and stone that owed a debt to Moore. Few looked; none bought.

Duckworth's analyst had collected works by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie, two leading figures in the studio ceramics movement that had emerged after the war, which emphasized sculptural form over decorative craft. (Both had also fled the Nazis to live in London, Coper from Germany, Rie from Austria.) Duckworth, who'd gazed at their pots in her doctor's office week after week, eventually befriended Rie--the "English ceramic queen," as she calls her--and in 1955 tried her hand at clay. But she didn't know how to make glazes. "So I rang Lucie up and said, 'Can you give me a glaze recipe?' I thought it was like asking for a cheesecake recipe. And she said, 'I wish you'd go to school and learn something about ceramics. Then you'd learn something about glazes and then we can talk again.'"

That same year the 36-year-old Duckworth enrolled in the Hammersmith School of Art in London, but she quickly dropped out, finding it too doctrinaire--she'd been trained as a sculptor, not a potter. From 1956 to '58, she studied at the more liberal Central School of Arts and Crafts. Duckworth found that working with clay instead of harder materials allowed her to be more spontaneous and experimental. It had the added attraction of being a more popular medium among collectors. "I did stone carvings for many years, and I thought it would be nice if people would want to come and look at my work," she says. "Then I discovered I really liked [ceramics]. And then I discovered I could sell it before I knew how to make it." In 1957 she exhibited her first clay pieces in London, and sold most of them.

In 1960 Duckworth became an instructor at the Central School, and she and Aidron set up a studio together. That year they also visited Moore on his farm. "I told him I was going into ceramics," Duckworth recalls. "He said, 'Oh, that's terrible, that's so boring. It's the same thing all the way around.' He didn't know what ceramics could be, and I didn't want to argue with him." She never saw Moore again.

Within a few years, her abstract hand-built ceramics were widely exhibited and purchased throughout Great Britain. Duckworth did create some functional pieces--cups, bowls, and platters--but they weren't necessarily destined for the dining table. It was the form she was interested in, not the function.

But while her professional reputation grew, her domestic life suffered. Aidron, she says, "had a very good art education. I was doing sculpture, and that's what he wanted to do. And he thought, we can't have two sculptors in the family, so he went in for furniture design. He basically always resented the fact that he wasn't doing what he had wanted to do." Aidron also taught design, and later art. "He was an excellent teacher. If he'd been happy with being a brilliant teacher, he could've had a terrific career. But he wanted to be an artist."

When the University of Chicago contacted her in 1964 about the Midway Studios job, Duckworth went overseas without him. They divorced the following year. They never had any children, but they did adopt Ruth's 11-year-old nephew, Peter, when one of her sisters died in the early 50s. He lived with them and other relatives for ten years and now lives in England. Aidron, who migrated to the U.S. a few years after his ex-wife, died in New Hampshire last year.

Working in Chicago, Duckworth began creating the kinds of pieces that would earn her a reputation as one of the country's preeminent fine arts ceramists. "She brought the British modernist sensibility of clean lines, organic forms, and abstracted figuration in sculpture to the American experience in ceramics," says Lauria. Preferring subdued earth tones to bright colors, Duckworth became known for her smooth, unglazed vessels in porcelain, the most delicate and demanding of all clay mediums, as well as for what have been dubbed "mama pots"--highly textured, irregularly shaped stoneware globes with crevices through the middle, evoking brain lobes, vegetables, or perhaps female genitalia.

Duckworth denies there's any specific sexual or feminist content in her work. Though not an environmental artist in the traditional sense, she believes all living things are related, and strives to capture that ecological connection in her sculpture. She insists that her fecund forms are drawn from nature, much like the material from which they're made. "Everything comes out of a great clay bin, and goes back into the clay bin," she told an interviewer in American Ceramics magazine in 1992.

She began showing with Exhibit A gallery on East Ontario in the early 70s. Owner Alice Westphal "was a very intelligent person," says Duckworth, "but her gallery was not generally supported by people in Chicago." Few ceramics galleries were. Martha Schneider, who took private classes from Duckworth in the 70s and was one of the original owners of Schneider, Bluhm and Loeb Gallery, a ceramics gallery in Highland Park, moved the business to River North in 1989 and bought out her partners a few years later. For the last decade, Schneider Gallery has specialized in photography. "People will pay $10,000 for a bad piece of glass, but not $4,000 or $5,000 for a good piece of ceramics," says Schneider. "They'll go and buy factory-made Japanese dinnerware for twice as much as pieces made by an artist."

Duckworth's last show at Exhibit A was in 1984; the gallery, then in River North, folded several years later. She signed on with Garth Clark Gallery, a New York ceramics powerhouse, in 1989, and several years later with Santa Fe's Bellas Artes Gallery.

Meanwhile, she started receiving public commissions. She has done dozens over the years, mostly relief wall panels, for public and corporate buildings in Illinois as well as for art institutions and private collectors throughout the country. Some of the works are abstract, composed of overlapping planes of clay slabs, while others, like The Creation, at Congregation Beth Israel in Hammond, Indiana, incorporate more concrete imagery. Sky Over Illinois, on the ninth floor of the James R. Thompson Center, suggests aerial views of landscapes.

Chicago painter John Himmelfarb assisted Duckworth on two of her largest public works. After graduating from Harvard in 1970, Himmelfarb moved back to Chicago and began working in his parents' East Pilsen art studio; Duckworth had a space in the same building. "She's been a good friend and mentor," he says. "The jobs she provided were important for me to get my career going, and hanging around with a more established artist was terribly helpful." Himmelfarb carved cave-painting-like animal figures into Duckworth's untitled 1984 Percent-for-Art piece for the Animal Care and Control Center at 2741 S. Western, her only outdoor ceramic work. (Last March, after cracking and loosening due to temperature extremes, a dozen or so tiles on the top half of the piece fell off. The Chicago Public Art Program is paying for the artwork's repair.) But his biggest job for her was in 1976, when the Germany-based Dresdner Bank commissioned Duckworth to create a 200-square-foot stoneware mural for its lobby on the ground floor of the Board of Trade Building. She recruited Himmelfarb to help shape, glaze, and fire the 65 slabs. Clouds Over Lake Michigan was based on a map of Chicago and its surroundings and includes prairies, rivers, hills, tall buildings, the lake, and high-relief ridges representing windswept clouds.

In 1987, Dresdner Bank informed Duckworth that it was moving to a higher floor and that it would cost too much to take Clouds Over Lake Michigan along; a contractor had already removed several of the tiles, breaking one in the process. Fearing the artwork would be lost, Thea Burger got on the phone with Dresdner officials. "They said as much as they loved the piece, it didn't make sense for them to spend $100,000 taking this thing down," she says. "So I said, 'Would you give it to us? We'll try to take it down.'"

The bank agreed, but wanted to be compensated. Burger arranged for Dresdner to donate the piece to the Chicago Architecture Foundation as a tax write-off, then called a local union. Three commercial tile setters got the job done in two days for $1,200, according to Burger. The CAF, in turn, relocated the mural to the lobby of the Chicago Board Options Exchange at 400 S. LaSalle, where it stands today.

Yet Duckworth doesn't think the lighting in the new location does Clouds Over Lake Michigan justice. Against her wishes, the CBOE installed lamps too far from the wall. "And that's very important," she insists. "If it was well lit, it would throw beautiful shadows....So I no longer take my friends there to see it, because I'm annoyed by it."

The interior of Duckworth's redbrick Ravenswood building, the former pickle factory she bought and remodeled in 1982, abounds with natural light, plants, and art, feeling like a lived-in museum. The upstairs living space, set around a mezzanine that overlooks the ground-floor studio, is furnished mainly with Duckworth's own work: sculptures sit on the floor, panels hang on the walls, pots adorn tables, porcelains line windowsills. Also on display are paintings by Himmelfarb and Chicagoans Michiko Itatani and Robert Middaugh, as well as clay pieces by Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, and Peter Voulkos, who died last February and was as influential in contemporary ceramic sculpture as Duckworth. A back room offers views of her flower and vegetable garden; she loves to cook and can. "I've always liked variety, in my food and in my work," she says.

Duckworth has traveled extensively with friends--she's been to the Canadian Rockies, to the California desert, to Israel and the Red Sea. She goes back to visit friends and family in England and Germany. But she doesn't know how much longer she can span the globe in comfort. These days she walks with a pronounced limp, the result of a spill she took on a tour ship December 31, 1999, while visiting Antarctica--she had wanted to celebrate the new millennium by seeing penguins and the translucence of polar ice. She broke a femur and had to have surgery at a naval hospital in Chile. "It changed my life," she says of the accident. "I can still work, I can still lift things, but some days it's worse than others."

She had a mechanical lift installed in her building two years ago, so she can move more easily between her residence and her workshop. She has two gas-fired kilns, and numerous tables are cluttered with a bewildering array of pieces in various stages of completion; there are separate areas for hand building, drying, and glazing. How does she know what to work on? "It doesn't matter," she shrugs. "I work a half hour on this, and then an hour on that, and then I work on this, and then I work on that, all in the same day."

There are also several tables filled with discards--Duckworth guesses she loses about a fourth of what she fires due to cracking or breakage or because something doesn't satisfy her. But the mistakes serve a purpose. "I play with them and I put them together in different ways. I think, I wonder how this would look on top of this....It's my playroom."

Even in her 80s, Duckworth hasn't stopped experimenting, evolving. While she still turns out her characteristic mama pots, abstract sculptures, and wall panels, her work has become increasingly minimalist. And some of her bronze pieces are quite large, twice as tall as she is, and birdlike in form.

In 1993 she was commissioned by the state of Illinois to create The Guardian for the public plaza of the Social Security Administration Building in Rockford, and six years later she completed The Spirit of Survival, situated outside Lewis and Clark University's administration building in downstate Godfrey. But she has yet to get a major commission from the city of Chicago. "That's what I think would be really nice," she says.

Cultural officials and curators "know that Ruth's available for murals," says Burger. "They think, I would guess, that her prices would be too high. On the other hand, they don't realize she's doing these large sculptural forms....So when they're talking about a local sculptor to do a [monumental] piece, they don't think of her."

Burger goes on to say that many people, "even if they're not avid art collectors, even if they don't go to a lot of exhibits, if you say Ed Paschke--using a Chicago artist as an example--they can visualize what they're going to get. Even people who collect clay, until they come to the studio, we are constantly told over and over again, 'Oh, I would've never known that was a Duckworth.' Ruth's work is so diverse. It isn't easy to get to know, let's say that. You have to convince people to study the body of work to know what the work is about. It's a wonderful problem."

Duckworth continues to grapple with artistic problems of her own--mainly, how best to express a concern for the endangered environment. She contributes to several ecological and wildlife organizations and pores over books about the earth sciences. As she says in a recent artist's statement: "To me, my life and my work are relatively unimportant compared to the drama of a sick planet. The health of the planet and how to keep it intact are what matter most. The earth is so fragile and beautiful, and it needs so much love and caring, and not just by me. Can I express any of that in my work? I really don't know."

But she has learned something. "You've got to do what you've got to do, whether other people think it's right or not," she says. "If I want to do something that's dubious, whether anybody else is going to love it, I'd still have to do it because I hope I'm going to love it. If I wanted to do a very big piece in here that looks like a mountain, but would probably never sell, I would do it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.

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