Artist interview with Ruth Duckworth: America's top artist in clay turns 80

She sees herself as a sculptor and rejects any links with Arts and Crafts descendant, Bernard Leach


With its shelves crammed with what amounts to a history of American pottery, from Ralph Bacerra’s pots with gold lustre finials to Philip Egland’s brazen nudes, the Garth Clark Gallery inventory room makes a appropriate setting to interview the nation’s foremost potter/sculptor, Ruth Duckworth. At eighty and of slight stature, Ms Duckworth’s quiet manner belies her strength and presence. She continues to turn out sparse, elegant works, and a brief glance around this room confirms their serenity and meditative qualities.

“Innovation characterises Ruth’s work,” says dealer Garth Clark, who has represented her since 1989. The current show, “Ruth Duckworth at eighty” (until 22 May) contains twenty-five works. Unglazed porcelain cups cost $5,500, while a work resembling two skulls in taupe and celadon, or a double portrait, run to $22,500; a wall plaque costs $85,000. Her works in clay have gone for as much as $100,000 and routinely sell out quickly.

Clients for her work today are varied. Mr Clark says those who collect her pieces include many who may dedicate an entire portion of their collection to her ceramics. The fine art institutions that have works by the artist include: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria & Albert in London, Windsor Castle and the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art.

A refugee from Nazi Germany, Ms Duckworth made her home in England from 1936 and lived there for thirty years. Her early trauma led her to psychoanalysis, and the doctor who treated her in the 1940s collected pots by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie. His treatment had a profound effect on her work. She studied at the Hammersmith School of Art and later the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she later taught. She influenced many ceramic artists in Britain, among whom were Gordon Baldwin, Ian Auld, Dan Arbeid, Gillian Lowndes and Alan Wallwork, but in 1966, she accepted a teaching position at the University of Chicago Midway Studios.

Overall, her work is distinguished by her hand modelling; few pieces are cast. The constant in her forms is their organic nature, whether it be an architectural mural or small object. As she has moved closer to abstract shapes, her work has increasingly married pottery to sculpture.

How do you see yourself? As a ceramicist, potter or sculptor?

I don’t see myself as a potter at all. In fact, for the last fifteen years, I have considered myself a sculptor. I spent three years as a sculptor in Liverpool and then ten years carving tombstones, yet I never sold a piece of figurative sculpture in those days, so I turned to clay. Now clay is no longer my only medium; I work in bronze. [Her bronze architectural reliefs can be found in Lewis & Clark Community College, in Godfrey, Illinois.]

Do you consider yourself a descendant of Bernard Leach, who was grounded in the Arts & Crafts movement?

I’ve never been a follower of Bernard Leach. My work is of a different nature—hardly rigid or limited like Leach’s. Early on Lucie Rie urged me to study with him, so I went to Kingston where he taught. I can still remember him stating that every pot has to have a foot, a rim, a lid. Yes, I’ve made tea sets but overall my work is not like Leach’s; nothing is practical; not a single piece is destined for daily living.

Both Hans Coper and Lucie Rie were pivotal figures in your life. Which influenced you most?

I’ve taken far more from Hans Coper than Lucie. For one thing, his forms are strong and usually he employs one oxide which he explores in depth, which I also do. Overall, none of my shapes owes a debt to Lucie, rather, mine are thinner, more delicate.

Can you detail your working habits?

My days are like those of any office worker. I begin at 9:30 and close up at five. When getting ready for a show, I will work ten straight hours in a stretch. Then two days a week, an assistant comes in to make the clay, roll out slabs for wall pieces, pack the kiln and once pieces are fired, assemble them. I begin by setting aside time for what some people might call meditation, but I think of it as breathing. Thirty minutes, uninterrupted, is all I need to feel peaceful and ready to create. For the bigger pieces, such as wall plaques and floor sculptures, I don’t turn at first to paper and pencil for sketches, but make little clay models. They’re really too small—four inches by six inches—to be considered maquettes. In some cases, I will create three or four and set them aside for consideration the following day. If I liked it yesterday, what will my thoughts be about it today?

Potters often discard a significant portion of their work. Do you?

It’s not so much that I discard, but rather that I rethink and remould shapes. Overall, I tend to make works in families, so in every batch there are a number of similar pieces. Of what I fire, 25% is lost—shattered, cracked, or in some way insufficient. This is especially true for the paper-thin shapes. In part, such a high percentage of breakage is due to fact that what I want to create, porcelain simply doesn’t like to do. For example, the unglazed porcelain cups are hand sanded. On the other hand, stoneware is far easier to produce. My output is not prodigious—often only twenty-five finished pieces a year. For example, a wall piece can consume five weeks just in terms of resolving problems with new shapes and forms.

What works of art do you look to for inspiration?

I don’t. These days, I rarely go to galleries or museums on a regular basis. Early on, I sought out sculpture for study, primitive art and pre-Columbian, too. In England when I was at the Central, I would frequent the British Museum several times a week and sought what I found meaningful. Later Noguchi imparted a certain strength and simplicity to me.

Are your works vehicles for exploring the subconscious?

My aim is direct, not to be new or shocking or provoke mystery, but rather to make the viewer feel good. I would say overall my works are meditative with a healing quality. Fifty years ago, when I was trying to heal myself from my own experience of displacement , I learned that works such as Henry Moore sculptures, Dürer engravings and Rilke poetry were healing. From that I wanted to make pieces that would heal others.

Can you tell us a bit about your early encounters with Henry Moore?

I first met him and Barbara Hepworth in 1950. In 1960 my husband and I travelled down to St Ives to show Henry Moore my stone carvings. I then told him I wanted to turn to pottery. His reply was immediate: “That’s so boring! It’s the same repeated forms again and again.” He did not realise how one could shape clay and I did not want to say, “You don’t understand.” But I never saw him again.

What artists are represented in your personal collection?

I live and work in a former pickle factory of 6,000 square-feet on the north side of Chicago because I hate clutter and crave space. Of course, there are my own works. I really only collect work by people I know personally. So I have two Hans Copers, a Peter Voges, two Bob Turners, a John Himmelfarb. I traded my works for them. At one point, Lucie Rie gave me a bowl. I visited her every summer, but the bowl broke, so I mounted the pieces on a frame. Later, I said to her:, “Now I’m rich enough to buy one of yours” and she replied, “But I don’t sell to a friend.”

Your ceramics in particular are capturing the public awareness and other ceramicists are gaining greater recognition. Whom do you see as conveying a message similar to yours? Whom do you see as your successor in the next generation?

Today, as most American ceramicists use colour heavily and apply a range of decorative devices, I really don’t see any one here following in my footsteps. Internationally, there is Glynn Hanssen Pigott of Brisbane, Australia, who resembles me in terms of the purity and simplicity of her works. However, a major difference between our works is that most of mine is not thrown.

With the Picasso ceramics and the contemporary ceramics collection on show the Metropolitan Museum of Art and so much else in New York, what will you be visiting?

Of course, the shows at the Met are on my list, but so too is the Asia Society basket show (“Bamboo masterworks: Japanese baskets from the Lloyd Cotsen Collection”, until 30 May). Then I will take my nephew to the Noguchi Museum and studio in Queens. But top of my list is a trip to “Antarctica with Shackleton” at the American Museum of Natural History.

o Garth Clark Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, No. 305, New York 10019-3918, % +1 212 246 2205, fax +1 212 489 5168