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Ruth Duckworth dies at 90; modernist sculptor and muralist

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Ruth Duckworth, a noted modernist sculptor and muralist who created abstract ceramic forms for pieces breathtakingly large and charmingly small in her studio in a renovated Chicago pickle plant, has died. She was 90.

Duckworth died Oct. 18 at a Chicago hospice after a brief illness, said Thea Burger, her agent.

She was both a master of ceramics and of escaping easy definition, the Washington Post said in a 2006 article on a traveling retrospective of Duckworth's work, which was shown at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery.

Many of her large-scale murals and sculptures also graced lobbies, airport terminals and other public spaces.

A native of Germany who moved to England when she was 17, Duckworth came to the United States in 1964 to teach at the University of Chicago. Her first commission was "Earth Water and Sky," a 400-square-foot stoneware mural for the entryway of the university's geophysics building.

In the 1970s, she received a commission for "Clouds Over Lake Michigan," a mural that was displayed first in a bank and later in the lobby of the Chicago Board of Trade building. It is a sweeping piece of relief that incorporates meteorological and geological themes.

"That was really a breakthrough piece for her. She really found her voice and form in that piece," said Michael Dunbar, her friend and a sculptor who is an art in architecture coordinator for the state of Illinois.

Most of her sculptures are abstract pieces, shaped in stone, porcelain and bronze. She refused to name them because she wanted "people to have their own fantasy or ideas about it, and not mine," Duckworth told CBS News in 2006.

In addition to her large public works, she created smaller pieces in unglazed white porcelain that included a cup and blade series and tabletop figures.

When her traveling exhibit stopped at the Long Beach Museum of Art in 2006, bird-shaped pieces in the lobby gave way to three "unwieldy vessels" that suggested "ostriches with their heads stuck in the sand or sleeping ducks standing on one leg, their heads tucked underwing," art reviewer David Pagel wrote in The Times.

"Such whimsical associations are the heart and soul of Duckworth's art, in which simple shapes invite whimsical stories and embrace the sensual side of a very gentle Surrealism," Pagel wrote in 2006.

Born Ruth Windmuller in Hamburg, Germany, on April 10, 1919, she was the youngest of five children. A sickly child, she learned to draw at an early age after a physician prescribed isolation to help her health.

During the rise of Hitler's regime, she fled at 17 with her family to England because her father was Jewish.

She studied at the Liverpool School of Art, the Hammersmith School of Art and the prestigious Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, where she later taught.

The war years were hardscrabble, and she worked at a munitions factory, cleaning the dies in which bullets were cast. She also carved roses and ivy leaves on tombstones.

After the war, she met her future husband, Aidron Duckworth, at a party. They married in 1949 but divorced 17 years later. One byproduct of an unsuccessful marriage, she later said, was that she could devote a lot of time to her work.

A brother who had pledged to always support her as an artist died at sea during World War II, and a sister was diagnosed as a schizophrenic.

Duckworth fought depression, engaged in years of psychoanalysis and found expression in her art.

She started out by carving stone but moved quickly to clay.

She approached the medium as a sculptor rather than with the traditional methods of a potter and was influenced by such modernist sculptors as Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi, as well as primitive work and ancient carvings.

Duckworth lived on the second floor of the space she renovated in the early 1980s in a pickle factory on Chicago's North Side.

A large opening in the floor allowed her to look down from her home to see her murals in progress and envision how they would look on a wall.

Nature remained her inspiration, and many of her ideas took root in a courtyard garden.

Duckworth is survived by her sister, Ilse Windmuller, of Wales.

news.obits@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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