Meteorology was the first science we studied when I was in middle school in the Chicago area during the early 1960s and I was mesmerized by clouds. Whether we were keeping a record of feathery wisps of cirrus or densely packed, almost volcanic cumulonimbus, Chicago with its erratic and changeable weather patterns and the expanse of Lake Michigan, which situated the city, was the perfect laboratory. The pages of our new textbook contained some of the first satellite photographs of the planet and its atmosphere. Even though we didn’t know it at the time, such aerial photographs were revolutionary because they showed the Earth and the sky without a horizon line. Those images were responsible for a fundamental shift in scientific perception. Photographed from outer space, the Earth and its topography, encircled by layers of gasses, appeared as a unity.
The ceramic sculptor Ruth Duckworth, who had come from London to the University of Chicago’s Midway Studios in 1964, was also captivated by Chicago’s cloud cover and the new technologies that highlighted the oneness of the physical universe. Duckworth had been invited by Dean Harold Hayden, an artist and art critic, to work and teach at Midway Studios, which had been equipped with a kiln for potters. She remained on the faculty for 13 years and continued working in the city until her death in 2009. Although she was inordinately modest and what University of Chicago curator Laura Steward calls “a lifelong outsider,” Duckworth left a mark on the city with her public work, the rugged swirls, knots and stiff clay ridges of her enormous murals, as well as with her more intimate pieces such as the Mama Pots, which seemed to be made of a membrane that appeared to be simultaneously stitched together and bursting apart, or her uncanny sliced cups and porcelain birds.
The University of Chicago is currently celebrating the permanent installation of Duckworth’s heroic 240-square-foot, 2,500-pound mural “Clouds Over Lake Michigan” at its Regenstein Library. The work was originally owned by a downtown bank and later acquired by the Chicago Board of Trade. It joins a companion mural, “Earth, Water and Sky,” commissioned not long after Duckworth first arrived in Chicago and installed in 1968 on four walls and the ceiling of the entryway to the Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences, located roughly in the middle of the campus. In September, the University’s Smart Museum of Art opened “Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity,” a show of about 60 pieces that will be on view until February 4, 2024. The objects possess a serenity but also a lively and sometimes oppositional quality. Made primarily of porcelain or stoneware (a few are cast in bronze), they are free-form and hand-built. Produced during a time when most ceramics were wheel-thrown and intended for use, these are vessels that stubbornly explore the meaning of vessels and figures that deconstruct our assumptions about figures.
Duckworth was one of those carriers of culture who came to Chicago from Europe at mid-century, bringing with her a technical virtuosity and dedication to the principles of Modernism and Modern design, as well as memories of trauma and expatriation. She was born in Hamburg in 1919, the youngest of five Windmüller children. Her mother was a Lutheran; her father, an unobservant and assimilated Jew, had come to Germany from Manchester, England, to practice as an attorney. During her early childhood, she was often sickly and spent much of her time lying in bed and drawing. It wasn’t until she was 13 or 14 years old that she became aware of her Jewish heritage. In a 2005 video interview, Ruth Duckworth, a Life in Clay, she recalled the trauma of this revelation: “…I shared a bedroom with my sister, Elsa. And she said, ‘Do you know we’re Jewish?’ And I said, ‘We’re not Jewish!’ You know we were going to a Lutheran school. And I said, ‘We’re not the people that crucified Christ!’ I was shocked! Then later, I said to my mother, ‘Don’t you think we should have been told?’ She says, ‘We thought it was totally unimportant.’” Not long after that, Duckworth’s school was required to add Nazi race theory to the curriculum and she was told, “Well, to be a Jew is very bad. But there’s something worse than being a Jew and that’s being half a Jew.” One day, not long after that, Hamburg’s school children were sent out to the streets to welcome Hitler’s military parade, everyone raising their arms in the Nazi salute. Duckworth remembered “…and I had every intention not to raise my arm when he came but, in fact, it was practically impossible, you know…” The stress and anxiety of those times prodded a girl who was already retiring to feel more remote and even quietly defiant. Although she had been an isolated child, as she put it, she “always had been keen on art,” and wanted to be an artist. When she finished secondary school in 1936, Nazi race laws hindered her enrollment in art school and she was enraged.
That year her parents sent her to England to lodge with an older sister who was married and living in Liverpool. The plan was that she would study art and help with her sister’s household while waiting for the rest of the family to emigrate, which they did in 1938. Like many other refugees, Duckworth struggled in England. She questioned the curriculum at the Liverpool College of Art, resenting the regulations and conformism at the school and when she completed her coursework, she didn’t know what direction she wanted to follow with her art. At first, she joined a puppet troop, the Vienna Puppet Company, carving expressionistic puppet heads and performing. Because she wanted to participate in the war effort—as she put it, “I wanted to defeat Hitler”—she worked in two different munitions factories where the tedium and music piped into loudspeakers nearly broke her spirit. Following that, she worked for an undertaker, carving letters in stone and making ornamental roses and ivy leaves. When she received news that her brother had died on a ship that went down in the Indian Ocean, she had a profound nervous breakdown and only with the help of psychoanalysis (which she apparently returned to many times in her life) did she slowly begin to find her way, returning to art school and gradually defining herself as a sculptor who worked predominantly in clay. In 1949 she married a fellow sculptor, Aidron Duckworth. They had met at a party given by the Anglo-French Art Center and he assisted her with a commission she had been awarded to carve the 14 Stations of the Cross in limestone at the St. Joseph’s Church in New Malden. Even from the beginning, Aidron felt constrained by the marriage and had difficulty launching his own career as an artist while Ruth’s creativity was blossoming.
In the 1950s, Duckworth was connected to the Central School in London, first as a student and then as a teacher, and she continued developing a distinctive and innovative style, making vessels using both rough-hewn stoneware as well as sleek porcelain. Through the community of exceptional Jewish refugee ceramicists associated with the Central School, she met Henry Rothschild, the owner of the Primavera Gallery in London and he gave her two one-person shows in 1960 and in 1962. These exhibits were her openings to the London Education Authority and the British Crafts Council and it was certainly because of this greater exposure that she received the invitation from Chicago. Although Aidron followed her to America, the marriage was irrevocably strained and ended in divorce.
Ruth Duckworth’s artistic influences ranged from the composed calm and grace of Indian figurative art and Cycladic sculpture to the humane Modernism of Henry Moore and the masterful technique of British potter Lucie Rie but after her commission for the University of Chicago’s Geophysical Sciences there was a new dimension to her work and a deepened awareness of nature. There’s no doubt that this was partially due to the dramatic quality of Chicago’s clouds. “I like the clouds… I’m fascinated with clouds,” she says matter-of-factly in the interview mentioned above. But the influence of a famous collection of slides must also be acknowledged. These were photographs taken by her friend the meteorologist Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita (affectionately known as “Mr. Tornado”), who used them as predictions for severe storms. Ink-jet copies of nine of these images are included in the Smart Museum exhibit. They demonstrate how cloud shapes entered into Duckworth’s visual vocabulary, appearing as thousands of mushroom-like projections in one of the murals and as gray flocks of sheep grazing over Lake Michigan in the other. The depth and scope of the mural projects was transformative and Duckworth understood the change inside herself. “This work made me look at the sky and think of the heavens,” she said, “and that really put me in the context of thought that all of these forces and those of the world we live in grow from a common energy.”
Like artist Isamu Noguchi, Duckworth revered her material. With her murals, she combined stoneware and porcelain, challenging the clay and then using a technique of high-firing. If she pushed it to the extremes, she was honoring its essence. As she developed greater self-confidence as an artist, she took more pleasure in confronting the stubborn resistance of clay. She jokingly complained, “I’m constantly fighting it. It wants to lie down, you want it to stand up. I have to make it do what it doesn’t want to do. But there’s no other material that so effectively communicates both fragility and strength.” Perhaps her greatest accomplishment was the trick of making clay, which is heavy and comes from the ground, appear airborne like a bird or a cloud. In her untitled biomorphic figures, cloud shapes bubble up or reach out into space, merging or intersecting as the artist combines wedges and organic forms, intuitively building them together in interactive play. If she demonstrated how opposition and contradiction are a basis for harmony and balance, perhaps she was repairing the turned-upside–down world of her childhood, healing it through a comprehension of the unity in nature.
Top image: Ruth Duckworth, “Clouds Over Lake Michigan,” 1976, Ceramic. Installation view in the Joseph Regenstein Library, 2023. The University of Chicago Public Art Collection, Gift of Cboe Global Markets. Photo by Bob. Art © Estate of Ruth Duckworth.