Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1919, Ruth Duckworth moved to England in 1936, during the rise of Nazi power. There she studied art at Liverpool School of Art, Hammersmith School of Art and Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, and she organized her first exhibitions. In 1964 she accepted a one-year teaching appointment at the University of Chicago but continued in this faculty post for 13 years and has lived since in the United States.
Duckworth’s work is represented in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection as well as major collections in the United States, Europe, and Japan. She also has received many honors, including a 1993 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Museum of Women in the Arts and a 1996 Gold Medal from the National Society of Arts and Letters. The Museum of Arts & Design named her a Visionary in 2003.
Smithsonian American Art Museum “Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery Presents First U.S. Retrospective on Celebrated Ceramicist Ruth Duckworth” (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian American Art Museum, press release, August 22, 2006)
Born to a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany, Ruth Duckworth was considered rebellious at an early age because she chose to pursue art while her four older siblings excelled academically. Unable to continue her art studies under the Nazi régime, she left Germany in 1936 and settled in Liverpool, England. Duckworth attended the Liverpool School of Art for four years, struggling to find a focus of study because she wanted to “paint like Rembrandt, sculpt like Michelangelo, and draw like Dürer,” a notion that was uncommon at that time because students were expected to study one discipline (American Ceramics, Fall 1992).
She worked various jobs after completing her studies, including traveling around the country as a puppeteer, working in a munitions factory during World War II, and carving headstones, before turning to clay in the 1950s. She was one of the first ceramic artists in England to create sculptural forms rather than traditional functional tableware. Duckworth left England in 1964 to accept a one-year teaching position at the University of Chicago, and remained in Chicago until her death. Her work was heavily inspired by the natural world, and she once said: “I think of life as a unity. This unity includes mountains, mice, rocks, trees, and women and men. It is all one lump of clay.” (State of Illinois Art Gallery, Ruth Duckworth and Martyl: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture, 1990)