Now 87, the German-born artist Ruth Duckworth has established herself as the most inventive and surprising, if not subversive, of artists working with clay and ceramics, though as the title of her current retrospective “Modernist sculptor” makes clear, she has always been more art than craft. The exhibition, currently at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (5 February-16 April), travels for some two years around seven venues throughout the US, closing at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, in 2007. Examples of Duckworth’s work are in the permanent collections of many major museums and she has earned a reputation as one of the US’s leading ceramicists following her arrival in Chicago in the 1960s. For the first time in more than 15 years, a large body of her work is now also on show in the UK at the fair “Collect” (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 8-14 February). But despite this, and numerous chunky monographs devoted to her life, her singular oeuvre is still too little known within the contemporary art world, perhaps due partly to her distaste for the press.
The Art Newspaper: How does it feel to see so much of your work, stretching back 50 years, in your retrospective?
Ruth Duckworth: Of course it makes me feel very content. I am especially pleased to see many of the pieces I had not seen in years, all of them gathered in one place.
TAN: With all this attention you must now be amongst the most famous living potters?
RD: Well I’ve realised that along with the great pleasure of the retrospective I’ve also lost some of my privacy. There are now people showing up on on my doorstep unannounced to tour the studio with groups of visitors. I’m sometimes even identified in Chicago restaurants. People come over, it’s very enjoyable but it also means I give up a little something.
TAN: You felt the urge to be an artist from an early age?
RD: As a child, I was somewhat sickly and in bed a great deal so I would draw all the time. Then, aged about 10, I was going by a brick factory and got some clay and started sculpting with it. I decided back then that I wanted to be a sculptor.
TAN: Was it difficult adjusting to life in England coming from Germany at 17?
RD: Yes, because my family and I were forced to leave a home and city where once we had been very happy. My father was a very well established lawyer in Hamburg, his grandparents had owned cotton mills in Manchester, where my father was actually born and as a result we were all able to get British citizenship. But my father did not speak English and was already in his mid-60s so he totally lost his career. He had to work as a bookkeeper while my mother was a sort of matron in a boarding house.
TAN: You first studied sculpture at Liverpool, then ceramics at the Central School of Art in London.
RD: Liverpool was just about learning basic information. The Central School was more in depth and much more sophisticated. I also went to Hammersmith,West London, but left very quickly, perhaps after no more than a month, because the rules were very rigid and guided by Bernard Leach and his followers. Leach did not like me. I once had an exhibition in Japan and he was asked to write about my work. He replied he would do so under no circumstances, he thought I was too avant-garde, too way out.
TAN: By contrast you became a longtime friend of Lucie Rie?
RD: I met Lucie Rie through my father when we first came to England—she was an immigrant from Austria. Lucie was the one that suggested I should go to the Central School to learn about glazes, and I followed her advice. But there was no influence other than that we were very good friends. Everyone seems to have the misconception we worked together. We never worked together or even discussed ceramics, my work is so totally different, we would talk about our gardens and cake recipes.
TAN: But through Rie you met Hans Coper?
RD: Yes, I met him through Lucie. That was a much stronger aesthetic connection. Coming from a stone carving background I was more interested in being adventurous and in England at that time, because of Leach, I was running up against a brick wall. But after I went to Central, I started to know what I was doing and went off in my own direction. I admired Coper’s work, it appealed to me tremendously but I don’t think of myself in any lineage or tradition.
TAN: If you had stayed in England would you have had a different career?
RD: Yes, I think so—but how does one really know? I love to work large, and back then the English only bought small pieces, while in America I was soon commissioned to do huge wall murals. In the early 60s American ceramic artists were much freer, and very unusual things with clay would be accepted. There is much less difference between England and America now than in the 1960s, now it is all fairly similar. If I’d stayed in England I might not be as well known internationally, and I probably would have sold a lot less and been forced to make what was sellable or do something else. TAN: Did you always manage to make a living through your work as a sculptor?
RD: I grew up with servants and nannies in Hamburg.When we arrived in England we had absolutely no money, so I constantly had to find jobs just to survive. I even worked briefly as a tombstone carver for an undertaker. I was walking down an alley, saw a tombstone business and went in to ask if they needed any carving done. They gave me a trial and I did it for about a year. I was carving roses and ivy, but then I noticed my own work was getting a little too sweet, and those shapes were starting to drift into my own work. But my letter carving is still very strong, from my tombstone-days in England. I did a mural wall, The creation, for a synagogue in Hammond, Indiana, and carved all the text explaining the creation.
TAN: For a while you also made practical objects for public sale.
RD: Yes, in the late 1950s I used to make dishes or bowls for people to use in the kitchen. They were sold at fairs and at my studio because I needed the money. I never used to think of them as “fine art” but these are now starting to come up at auction so my soup bowls are being treated as works of art. More astute people asked me to sign them, so I did; I signed just with the letter “R”. But I never expected Bonhams to be auctioning these bowls today. I’m just disappointed people don’t use them. When I first came to Chicago I made a little money making some candelabra for a local synagogue to give as gifts, and they paid me around $100. Now they can get $10,000 or more for them at auction. They’re just candelabra to be used, to be put on the dining room table. These are functional works; if I make a bowl why not just use it?
TAN: Do you make your own objects for everyday activities?
RD: Yes, I make my own kitchenware—dishes, cups and saucers and small bowls, everything in my kitchen except pots and pans. Of course, I don’t think about the rarity of any of the pieces made; we sell none of them.
TAN: You still work and live in the large building you bought in Chicago?
RD: When I arrived in Chicago again I just had a small teaching stipend, so I lived in a tiny apartment. Then I took a big risk and bought this totally run-down building and decided to try to fix it up. As a result I have a big studio: I live upstairs and, most importantly, have a city garden, which is rare in Chicago. I have always had this interest in gardens and plants, I always wanted to have a garden and live in the mountains but I am now very attached to my Chicago building. I think leaving Germany and then England was enough.
TAN: What is your daily routine like?
RD: I go into the garden every morning to work for an hour or more, as many of my so-called “figurative” elements actually come from parts of plants rather than the human body. I come back and have breakfast, then go down to the studio for the day. I still work Monday through Friday, nine to five. I have two assistants who do as much as they can, finishing, sanding, mixing, lifting the clay. I wish they could do more, but my work is so “minimal” that every little line in the piece is me, so I really have to do all the work, every element is part of me. Art is a unique process coming directly from the person, from their life: one’s work is oneself, is myself.
TAN: Using your own hand-building techniques, how do you actually work?
RD: It comes naturally. I very seldom sketch, I don’t mentally pre-plan a piece, I feel my way as I go, a gut reaction. I stand at my table with the clay, with lots of objects, maybe 100 things and I start to shape, to add, take away, to find what moves me and looks good. I do not destroy much work or just stop working on pieces I don’t feel good about. To be really honest if I make a piece and if I get pleasure out of it that’s the end.
TAN: You do not worry about the audience’s interpretation of your shapes?
RD: None of my work is titled, only commissions require a title. I’m not thinking of making a bird or a head, and to give a title leads the viewer to look for that. I want people to just look and enjoy as I do. About six months ago I created a new form, a cylinder, that I had not made before. I formed some breasts, put a head on it, I was not thinking of figuration, it just arrives. It has no rhyme or reason to it, that’s why I avoid technical questions of any kind because basically I don’t know how to answer them.
TAN: Do you distinguish between being a sculptor or a potter?
RD: Potters throw on a wheel and build up; I begin with clay and take away rather than build, so I do not think like a potter. I envisage a block of clay and then take away, as in carving, chipping away, I remove rather than build. However, having said that, one of my very favourite things is to coil and I do throw some things on the wheel.
TAN: Will you do something new in the future?
RD: Perhaps—I’ll know when it happens. My limits at the moment are those of time. I’ve previously experimented with new materials, such as porcelain on Plexiglas but I do not have the time with all the demands to try things out, to really be as experimental as I might like. Next year we will try to cut the schedule way back, although I have to create work for two shows in May. But I was always something of a rebel even as a child, a risk-taker, and I am still thinking of new shapes and not worried about anyone liking them. I am still willing to try new things, to leap off the cliff. It seems that the older I get, the bigger my works and ideas become. When I get time for myself I now want to make coiled pieces, about 10 feet tall. Who knows what they are going to be?
Currently showing: “Ruth Duckworth: Modernist sculptor”, Minneapolis Institute of Arts (5 February-16 April).
Born: 1919, Hamburg.
Education: Liverpool School of Art, Central School of Arts and Crafts.
Selected shows, 2001: “Porcelain Trienniale”, Master Nyon, Switzerland 2000: “Material: earth, small sculpture”, Kunstforum Kirchberg 2000: “Defining moments of ceramics”, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Galerie b15, Munich; Bellas Artes Gallery, Sante Fe
1999: Garth Clark Gallery New York; “Clay into art: selections from their collection”, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1994: Schleswig-Holstein Landesmuseum, Rendsburg 1993: “Keramik”, Galerie Bowig, Hanover.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ceramics grande dame thinks big'