Interviewed by JUDITH RAPHAEL
Chicago, Illinois, August 3, 1991
Ruth Duckworth is an internationally known ceramicist and sculptor who has lived in Chicago for the past twenty-eight years. Her residence is a 6,000-square-foot factory building, which has been converted to house Duckworth's commodious studio and kiln too. Out back is her garden, which although modest in scale possesses an impressive variety of flower, fruit, and vegetable life.
Born in Hamburg in 1919, Ruth Duckworth left Germany in 1936 for England, where she began her studies at the Liverpool School of Art. After working as a sculptor for fifteen years, she went to the Central School of Arts in London to study ceramics and in 1960 became an instructor at the school. Duckworth was invited to teach at the University of Chicago in 1964, a position she held until 1978 when she left to concentrate on her work. She has also taught at the State University of New York at Alfred and the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem.
Duckworth has had numerous commissions for her ceramic murals. In Chicago she has major murals at the Geophysical building at the University of Chicago, the Chicago Board of Trade, and the State of Illinois Building. Her exhibition record both nationally and internationally is extensive, and she has had major exhibitions at the Kunstgewerbe Museum in Hamburg and the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. Among the museums that have collected her work are the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, and the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam. In 1990 her work was featured in an exhibition at the State of Illinois Art Gallery in Chicago.
JUDITH RAPHAEL: Ruth, you appear the same to me as you have for the last twenty years. How do you feel in relation to the heavy physical demands of being a sculptor? Are there palpable differences for you now?
RUTH DUCKWORTH: Well, my technical skills haven't diminished, but it will surely happen sooner or later. I am a little slower. I relax more. I used to work roughly sixty hours a week and now I work forty. You know, there isn't really a "before seventy or an after seventy." It's a rather gentle continuum. Some days I feel like seventy and some days I feel like seven. I think most people do.
J.R.: Can you talk about changes in the way you view your work?
R.D.: Twenty years back the work was more romantic and I'm glad it's not like that anymore. For the last half dozen years it's been more refined and simpler. There is a way, however, that my view of my work in the world has changed. It may or may not have something to do with age. I think that my work is not as important to the world as I used to think it was. I think what is truly important is the survival of the planet. These ecological issues feel very large for me.
J.R.: I'm not surprised to hear you say that. Your work has always seemed to project a vision of the complexity and importance of nature.
R.D.: Yes, and I've had friends tell me to forget trying to save the earth by myself, that my work is a contribution. Maybe it shouldn't have to be a question of my art or the health of the planet. I do take myself seriously, enough to think that I would like to do a book about my work at some stage of my life, but philosophically, I still think the planet is more important.
J.R.: It's complicated, isn't it, to reconcile the selfish focus that is necessary to make art with the need to be dealing with issues that affect us?
R.D.: Well, these are very hard times to be alive.
J.R.: True, but your life as an artist was formed by hard times, coming of age as a Jew in Germany at the time of the Holocaust.
R.D.: I had to leave Germany for England when I was seventeen. I felt totally displaced and uprooted. …