Ruth Duckworth was a visiting artist at Midway Studios when Julian Goldsmith, SB’40, PhD’47, chair of geophysical sciences, bought one of her sculptures at a 1965 Renaissance Society exhibit. He invited her to view the piece in his home, where he mentioned that a Canadian potter was set to make a mural in the new Henry Hinds Laboratory for the Geophysical Sciences. “When I’m already here?” she asked. The commission went to her.
For inspiration, 86-year-old Duckworth recalls, department faculty gave her slides of clouds, topographic illustrations of Mount Fuji, and NASA photos—visuals that sparked her ongoing fascination with natural imagery. She rented an open apartment/studio in Pilsen, where she created the 400-square-foot, glazed-stoneware Earth, Water, and Sky in sections, which were then placed on the Hinds entranceway’s walls and ceiling.
It was Duckworth’s first large-scale work. Escaping from Nazi Germany to England in 1936, she studied art in Liverpool and London, where her first solo exhibition, in 1960, was held at Henry Rothschild’s Primavera Gallery. But the British art world preferred small pieces—and the diminutive Duckworth wanted to “do big things.” After Midway Studios recruited her in 1964 and she built the Hinds mural, she realized in the United States she could think—and sculpt—big. She stayed.
On Chicago’s faculty until 1977, Duckworth continues to work in her Ravenswood home, making sculptures huge and small, rough and organic, or white and geometric. A ceramist who “reigns supreme” (Wall Street Journal) and whose works portray “eloquence and power” (New York Times), she has her first retrospective this year. The 90-piece exhibit Ruth Duckworth, Modernist Sculptor ran at New York’s Museum of Arts & Design through April 3. The show hits Chicago’s Cultural Center April 30–July 10 before traveling on to five other U.S. cities.