By Franks, Tony
Ceramics Art & Perception , No. 70
AN APRIL 2007 EXHIBITION AT THE MARIANNE HELLER Gallery in Heidelberg brought together the work of Ruth Duckworth and Ken Eastman, well established and widely exhibited ceramists separated by two generations and an expansive ocean. While it is appropriate to call them both modernist sculptors, Heller's decision to exhibit them together was quite challenging. Forms, techniques, colours and surfaces have little in common, and the feelings expressed in their work clearly reflect the different stages in their development. But for both, the app roach to ceramics is minimalist in the sense that ideas appear through a reductive process rather than being built up and embellished. Equally, both are rich in form and surface but without decorative intentions, and while they demonstrate impressive expertise and facility with their materials and techniques, there is never a hint of virtuosity or showing off.
In the early '60s, when I was a student and the term 'modernist' was not yet part of our vocabulary, Ruth Duckworth was becoming a major influence throughout ceramics departments in British art schools. Bernard Leach, through the arrogant eyes of we young students, was already perceived as an historical figure, and the Anglo-Oriental mannerism that had dominated the previous 40 years was of little interest to us. The work of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper was admired of course, but perceived as cool and formalised; rather too sophisticated and demanding for our beginners' level. But Ruth Duckworth told a different story, there was work we could understand and emulate, and ceramics studios across Britain were soon bursting with pinched porcelain fungi and swelling stoneware fruits; organic clay had arrived like a harvest festival, and would remain firmly in place well into the '70s.
But Duckworth went to teach in Chicago; and the greater distance, and perhaps our gradual maturing, made us look more understandingly at her work and appreciate its strength and sensitivity, its vitality and sensuous form. By example, she had introduced a generation of British ceramists to monumental organic clay. In retrospect it can be said that Duckworth, more than any other potter who worked in Britain, was responsible for initiating the revolution which rejected traditional thinking, and opened our eyes to a fresh view of clay, while her subsequent influence in the US could claim to have provided a quiet but significant feminine balance to the immense macho impact of Peter Voulkos and his peers on American ceramics of the past 40 years.
A few weeks working in a studio beside Ruth in the '70s showed me what I had not seen in those student years; that natural fluency of her work depending on an understanding of both material and form, physically expressed but also intuitively understood. She was, after all, trained as a sculptor before becoming involved in clay, and owes infinitely more to Brancusi, Noguchi and Henry Moore than to Oriental or European ceramics. She demonstrates the same visionary authority as these great figures, but with a lightness of touch that makes her work so accessible. In conversation she has frequently used the word 'play' in relation to her ceramics, saying: "You have to learn to be spontaneous, to trust yourself and get on with it". Her work is often joyful and expressive with an optimistic sparkle reflecting, I suspect, her personal view of life. …