In the mid-1960s, Ruth Duckworth secured a commission for a ceramic mural for the new Geophysical Sciences Building at the University of Chicago, even though she had never previously attempted a mural. It was a defining point in her career. For Earth, Water, and Sky, completed in 1968, Duckworth abstractly depicted aspects of the earth's natural topography and environment, using clay glazed in earth tones, modeling "fins," and carving concentric circles to represent the elevation rings of Mt. Fujiyama. These components covered four walls - each 11 feet, 9 inches tall - and a ceiling, creating a complete environment. This triumph led to two other sizable clay mural commissions in the Chicago area for Duckworth over the next fifteen years.
Clouds Over Lake Michigan
In 1976 Ruth Duckworth was commissioned to produce a ceramic wall mural, nine feet high and twenty-seven feet long, for the German Dresdner Bank's branch in Chicago. (The mural was later moved to the lobby of the Chicago Board of Options Exchange Building).
Clouds Over Lake Michigan is a fluid blend of representational and abstract imagery, a multilayered visual map that plays with depth and flatness. "It begins with a literal representation of the watersheds of the Midwest around the lower end of Lake Michigan," explained Alice Westphal, Duckworth's dealer at the time. "This is overlaid by a grid pattern, and on this are imposed archaeological fantasies of Chicago as a site of an ancient civilization, abstractions of cloud patterns, and other meteorological, geological, and geographical features."
In Clouds Over Lake Michigan, Duckworth has invented a territory where rhythmic, unfurling nature collides with human history. The mural embodies the dualities in life: order and chaos, similarity and difference, the organic and the fabricated - the oppositional elements necessary to uphold balance and sustain harmony. Here the underlying themes are creation and regeneration - subjects that reappear in later works, most directly translated in her next large-scale architectural mural commission, The Creation.
The most direct embodiment of the creation/regeneration theme in Ruth Duckworth's oeuvre is The Creation, a 1984 mural she executed for the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Hammond, Indiana. It was to be mounted on the front wall of an auditorium space, and Duckworth was free to choose the theme. After visiting the synagogue, she immediately began reading the Bible for inspiration. The artist settled on the story of creation as told in the book of Genesis.
In the completed mural Duckworth sequentially unfolded the story of the seven days of creation in a vigorous spiral that travels from a central cavity - "where God is thinking" - outward. Starting at the center, the unformed universe develops into images of the heavens, the waters, the mountains, the living creatures, and ends with a depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. "I think of creation as an ongoing process," Duckworth commented on her use of the spiral, which she felt was the perfect symbol to visualize this concept. In a band that encircles the spiral she has carved and sculpted letters in Hebrew script that are drawn directly from the Genesis text. Duckworth found the task of cutting letters accurately in clay to be "a slow but satisfying job," and drew from her earlier experience of tombstone carving, a job she had taken during her youth in wartime England to sustain her.
For the Geophysical Sciences Building at the University of Chicago.
Detail, Clouds Over Lake Michigan, mural, 1976. Photograph by Jim Hedrich.
Mural, The Creation, stoneware, glazed, 1982. Photograph by Melville McLean.