Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity

September 21, 2023–February 4, 2024

A porcelain wall sculpture

When Ruth Duckworth arrived in Chicago from London to teach at the University of Chicago’s Midway Studios in 1964, she planned to stay for a year. Instead, she lived in the city for nearly fifty years until her death in 2009—half her life. It is strange, then, that she is still primarily known as a “British studio potter,” rather than as an innovative Chicago sculptor, deeply engaged in the natural world and responding to artistic developments in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s.

This monographic exhibition—the first since a 2005 retrospective—makes use of art historical advances of the last several decades to examine Duckworth’s Chicago work in a new light. Duckworth referred to herself not as a potter or ceramicist, but as a sculptor with clay. The exhibition takes her at her word, foregrounding her sculptural production. It traces the influence of geomorphology and the nascent environmental movement in her work, beginning with her commission to create a complete environment of clay tiles in the vestibule of the newly built Hinds Geophysical Laboratory, moving through her monumental tile mural Clouds Over Lake Michigan, into wall works in high relief, Mama Pots, and clay sculptures.

About the artist

Portrait of Ruth Duckworth in her studio, with a cluster of tall sculptures sitting on a table in front of her

Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1919, Ruth Windmüller Duckworth fled to England in 1936, where she built a career as a ceramicist during the post-war period. As a young artist in the 1940s and 50s, she struggled like so many others, working as a tombstone cutter, button-maker, and puppeteer, trying several art schools before finally graduating from the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

In 1964 at the invitation of the University of Chicago, Duckworth immigrated to the U.S. to teach ceramics at Midway Studios. In 1966, she had her first solo exhibition in the U.S. at the Renaissance Society, where she attracted the attention of Julian Goldsmith, Dean of Geophysical Sciences. Goldsmith, an avid collector of pre-Columbian ceramics, commissioned Duckworth to create a ceramic installation for the Hinds Geophysical Laboratory, then under construction.

This experience had a profound impact on the artist throughout her long career. She died in Chicago in 2009, at the age of 90, having significantly expanded the possibilities of her chosen medium.

Related Publication

This accompanying publication offers an in-depth look at Ruth Duckworth’s practice and history, with essays that focus on her connection to geomorphology and its influence on her work, her spiritual life, and how market demarcations like “sculpture” and “craft” came to shape our understanding of her work. Fully illustrated, the book includes many examples of her smooth ceramic works of abstract forms derived from nature as well as new documentation of the recently reinstalled public mural Clouds Over Lake Michigan. It features an introduction by exhibition curator Laura Steward with essays and other contributions from Abigail Winograd, Jack Schneider, and Kendra Thornburgh-Mueller.

Co-published by Radius Books, available in fall 2023.

On campus

The exhibition draws on research conducted as part of the UChicago course “Ruth Duckworth and Ceramics in Chicago,” taught by the curator in winter 2021.

Visitors to Life as a Unity at the Smart Museum are invited to experience Duckworth’s two large-scale installations that are part of the UChicago collection of public art:

Clouds Over Lake Michigan
Joseph Regenstein Library, 1st floor reading room
1100 E. 57th Street

Earth, Water, Sky
Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences, foyer
5734 S. Ellis Avenue

In Chicago

Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity is part of Art Design Chicago, a citywide collaboration initiated by the Terra Foundation for American Art that highlights the city’s artistic heritage and creative communities.

Logo for Art Design Chicago

Installation view, Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity, Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago. Photo by Bob.

Ruth Duckworth, Untitled (Wall Sculpture), 1970, Porcelain, 33-3/4 x 17-1/2 x 5-1/2 inches, Courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Duckworth and Salon 94, New York. Art © Estate of Ruth Duckworth.

Portrait courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Duckworth.

I think of life as a unity. This includes mountains, mice, rocks, trees, women, and men. It's all one big lump of clay.

—Ruth Duckworth