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 Ruth Duckworth  (1919 - 2009)

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Lived/Active: Illinois / United Kingdom      Known for: mod ceramics, stone carving, bronze sculpture

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Ruth Duckworth
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
"Ruth Duckworth, Sculptor and Muralist, Dies at 90"


Ruth Duckworth, a sculptor whose work in clay and bronze included monumental sculptures and murals, as well as small-scale, intimate pieces, died last Sunday in Chicago. She was 90.
Her death was confirmed by Thea Burger, her agent.

Ms. Duckworth followed an idiosyncratic career path, starting as a stone mason in Britain and not turning to ceramics until her 40s, bringing a sculptor’s sensibility to it. Intent on doing large-scale ceramic work, then out of favor in Britain, she accepted a teaching appointment at the University of Chicago in 1964 and began executing monumental ceramic murals and, later, bronze sculptures.

Her stoneware murals, notably Earth, Water and Sky (1967-68) and Clouds Over Lake Michigan (1976), incorporated topographical swirls and abstractly rendered cloud patterns. Her small works, by contrast, were often delicate and abstract, with surrealist overtones.  The influences were varied.  The stylized modernism of Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi and Isamu Noguchi competed for attention with Egyptian, Mexican and Cycladic art.

“She was a great original, pioneering her own path within ceramics, brilliantly exploring the idea of the figure, the vessel and the more abstract form,” said Emmanuel Cooper, a British ceramist and an editor of Ceramic Review.

Ruth Windmüller was born in Hamburg, Germany, on April 10, 1919.  Because her father was Jewish, she could not receive an art education under the Nazi regime, so in 1936 she left Germany for Britain, where she studied at the Liverpool School of Art.

With the outbreak of the war she began traveling with her own puppet show in northern England and then found work in a munitions factory making bullets.  After studying stone carving at the City and Guilds of London Art School, she worked for a time carving tombstone decorations.

In 1949, she married the sculptor Aidron Duckworth.  The marriage ended in divorce.  She is survived by a sister, Ilse Windmüller of Holyhead, Wales.

After visiting en exhibition of art from India, Ms. Duckworth resolved to become a ceramist and enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London in 1956, mainly to learn about glazes.  Initially she produced tableware in stoneware and porcelain, but gradually her work became more abstract and sculptural, with forms suggesting pebbles and rocks. It also assumed grander dimensions.

Ceramists, most of them wedded to the tradition of functional pottery thrown on a wheel, puzzled over Ms. Duckworth’s hand-shaped works. Sculptors, working in wood, stone or metal, took a dim view of clay as a medium.

Although it was dismissed out of hand by Bernard Leach, Britain’s leading ceramist, her work made an immediate impact on younger artists. “Ceramics studios across Britain were soon bursting with pinched porcelain fungi and swelling stoneware fruits,” Tony Franks, an English ceramist, recalled in the Australian magazine Ceramics in 2007. “Organic clay had arrived like a harvest festival, and would remain firmly in place well into the ’70s.”

After taking up a teaching post at the University of Chicago, where she remained until 1977, Ms. Duckworth was commissioned to execute a suite of murals for the entry atrium of the university’s new Geophysical Sciences Building.  Using topographical illustrations of Mount Fuji and satellite photos of the earth, she created Earth, Water and Sky, a suite of murals covering four walls, with porcelain clouds suspended from the ceiling.

Her most important large-scale work, Clouds Over Lake Michigan, is in the Chicago Board Options Exchange Building.  Mingling abstract and figurative elements, it depicts the watershed of Lake Michigan overlaid with archaeological fantasies and natural forms.  A third major ceramic work was The Creation (1982-83), commissioned by the Congregation Beth Israel in Hammond, Ind.

In the last decade she completed several monumental bronze sculptures for the campuses of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and Lewis and Clark College in Godfrey, Ill.

Although she remained in Chicago after retiring from teaching, working since the 1980s in a former pickle factory on the city’s north side, Ms. Duckworth exhibited widely in the United States and Europe.

In 2005 she was the subject of a retrospective, “Ruth Duckworth: Modernist Sculptor,” which opened at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan and traveled to six museums around the United States.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:

 The following information was submitted by Thea Burger, agent for the artist:

Selected Major Collections: 
Art Institute of Chicago, USA; Windsor Castle, England; Stuttgart Museum, Germany; National Museum of Modern Art, Japan; Boyman-Van Beuningen, The Netherlands; Everson Museum of Art, New York, USA; Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA; The Smithsonian Institution of American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery, Washington D. C.; National Museum of Scotland; Kestner Museum, Germany; Schleswig Holsteinisches Landesmuseum fur Kunst und Gewerbe, Germany; City Museum, Bassano Del Grappa, Italy; Buckingham County Museum, England; Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, USA; Wustum Museum of Art, Wisconsin, USA; St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri, USA; International Museum of Ceramic, New York, USA; Boston Museum of Art, USA; Mills College, California, USA; Inner London Ed. Comm., England;  Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Victoria and Albert Museum, England; J.S. Speed Art Museum, Kentucky, USA; Kestner Museum, Germany; Museum fur zeitgenossische keramische Kunst, Frechen, Germany; Utah Museum of Fine Arts, USA; Museum of Arts and Design, New York, USA; Los Angeles County Art Museum, USA; Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japan; Wuttembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart Germany; Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst, s'Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands; Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

Selected Honors and Awards:  
Ceramic Art of the World, Gold Medal, Calgary, Canada, 1973
Fellow of the American Craft Council, 1981
DePaul University, Honorary Doctorate Degree, 1982
Triennale de la Porcelaine, Nyon, Switzerland, 1992 (first American ever invited)
The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Lifetime Achievement Award , Gold Medal, 1993
American Craft Fellow Award, 25 years of Leadership, Gold Medal,  1993
National Society of Arts and Letters, Gold Medal,  National Career Award, 1996 
Ruth Duckworth Ceramic Scholarship Fund, established at Lewis and Clark College, 1998
The Madigan Prize, State of Illinois , Best Sculpture of the Year Award, 1999
Master of the Medium Award, Gold Medal, Renwick Art Alliance, 2001
Distinguished Artist of the Year, Beaux-Arts Celebration, Union League, Chicago, 2003
Arts in Education Award, Art in Teaching, Chicago, 2003
Visionary Award, Lifetime Achievement, Museum of Arts and Design, New York 2003
Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Greece, Olympic Sculpture Garden, Artist to represent the United States of America, (Athens, Greece) 2004
State of Illinois, Northeastern Illinois University, Sculptor Award, Chicago, 2005

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A Jewish-German emigrant who was educated in England but established her career in New York City, Ruth Duckworth is not easily categorized because her artwork runs a gamut of materials and subjects, which are mostly abstracted.  Among her creations are figurative bronzes, porcelain vessels, ceramic wall reliefs, abstract alabaster forms, and rough stoneware.

She enrolled in the Liverpool School of Art in England when she was age 17 and studied sculpture there from 1936 to 1940.  English sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were influential on her work.

In the mid 1950s, following the advice of potter Lucie Rie, she went back to school and attended the Central College in London.  She was immediately taken with the experimental atmosphere of ceramic potters, which was focused on abstaction rather than functionality.

Her early work was expressive, primeval forms and was mostly done with the coil method.  She gained attention but left England in 1964 to teach in Chicago for a year.  Leaving with her and having ongoing influence was Hans Coper, Britain's leading post-war potter.  In Chicago, she firmed her modernist inclinations, and created many bone white porcelain vessels that were purely art objects and lacking functionality.

As her work evolved in America, she has returned somewhat to figuration and creates larger-than-life bronze figures, but also continues to do smaller abstract sculptures from clay.  In January 2005, an exhibition of her work opened at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

Julian Stair, "Duckworth's Volumes and Planes", Art in America, December 2005, pp. 128-129.

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