One Big Lump of Clay: On Ruth Duckworth’s Earth, Water, Sky

Jack Schneider

“The Earth is so fragile and beautiful, it needs so much love and caring and not just by me. Can I express any of that in my work? I really don’t know.”

Ruth Duckworth[1]

In the exhibition Unsettled Ground: Art and Environment from the Smart Museum Collection, a large wooden box sits upon a pedestal. The box is open at the top and has three rectangular openings on three of its four sides. Its interior is covered from edge to edge in stoneware tiles that boast a wide variety of textures, shapes, glazes, and subtle colors (fig. 1). The ceramic has been pinched, pulled, and pressed into mounds, pits, and ridges that undulate across its surfaces, which are rendered in earthen tones ranging from ivory to sand, ochre, umber, and a surprising turquoise. Shifting focus back to the exterior, a name appears written in large capital letters along the base: RUTH DUCKWORTH.

Fig. 1. Ruth Duckworth, Maquette for “Earth, Water, Sky.” 1968–1969, glazed stoneware and wood. Gift of Mrs. Leonard Horwich, Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, 1987.6. Photograph by Jack Schneider.

Why did Duckworth create this curious object? Visual analysis alone does not reveal its purpose. The object’s title—Maquette for “Earth, Water, and Sky”—reveals that what we are looking at is a maquette, or architectural study that ceramicist Ruth Duckworth (b. Hamburg, 1919-2009) made for her 400-square foot mural Earth, Water, Sky located in the Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences (fig. 2).[2] The mural covers all four walls of the building’s foyer and, unlike the maquette, extends across the ceiling incorporating ceramic light fixtures designed by the artist. Also unlike the maquette, Duckworth’s immersive stoneware mural envelops its viewers, integrating them into its holistic depiction of nature.

In the published literature on Earth, Water, Sky, Duckworth never explicitly stated what, if anything, she hoped viewers would experience while visiting the artwork. In order to better understand her project, this essay considers the circumstances of the mural’s commission and the materials she referenced while developing it alongside the artist’s writings and cultural context in order to show how her specific understanding of the world was informed by and took form as Earth, Water, Sky.

Figure 2: Ruth Duckworth in 1969 with her mural Earth, Water, and Sky (1968-1969).

Earth, Water, Sky originated in a commission from Julian Goldsmith, Professor of Geochemistry and Chair of the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. Goldsmith first encountered Ruth Duckworth’s artwork at her 1965 exhibition at the Renaissance Society, the artist’s debut show in the United States, where she had recently relocated from London for a position teaching ceramics at the University of Chicago’s Midway Studios. Goldsmith purchased an artwork from the exhibition and subsequently invited Duckworth to his residence to view his collection of pre-Columbian ceramics. During this visit, Goldsmith told Duckworth of his department’s plans to construct a new building and to commission a Canadian potter to create a ceramic mural for its foyer. Duckworth retorted: “with me on the campus?!”[3] Duckworth thought it foolish to hire a ceramicist in Canada for the commission when she was local and available, Goldsmith agreed with her logic and offered it to her instead. Up to this point in her career, Duckworth primarily made small to midsize ceramic vessels and sculptures—the mural would be her first.[4]

The university planned the new building (fig. 3a and 3b) to centralize the Department of Geophysical Sciences, which was then scattered across seven locations on campus. The department was created just a few years earlier in 1961 by joining the Departments of Geology and Meteorology. Prior to this, these disciplines’ respective purviews—the study of the earth and the study of the atmosphere—were considered distinct. At the time of the merger, Goldsmith noted that “only a unified program can produce the data needed on the tides, weather patterns, the earth’s crust, the formation of meteors, the possibility of life on other planets.”[5] Given that Goldsmith’s department was embracing a more unified and multidisciplinary approach to natural science, it is little wonder that he requested the broad themes of earth, water, and sky for Duckworth’s mural. In a 1966 alumni letter, he noted that as students, staff, and visitors walked into the new building, Duckworth’s mural would allow them to “pass through its essence.”[6] Reflecting on the commission, Duckworth said she was “very lucky that the three words given to me by Goldsmith as subject matter: earth, water, and sky—fitted in so well with my predilections.”[7]

Figure 3a: Site plan of Henry Hinds Laboratory, University of Chicago. I. W. Colburn and Associates, 1966.

Figure 3b: University of Chicago’s Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences. Mark Israel, 1969.

According to Goldsmith, Duckworth “spent a great deal of time prowling in our library, looking at rocks, minerals, landscapes, waves and weather” as she developed her mural.[8] However, Duckworth’s representations of natural phenomena on the finished mural, which was unveiled in 1969, significantly deviated from the from the apparent objectivity of the scientific materials she encountered in her research. Duckworth opted instead for a more subjective approach in line with her ceramic vessels and sculptures, abstracting natural forms to such a degree that it’s never quite clear whether a given structure represents a mountain or a wave pattern, an ocean swell or a cloud formation.

That said, there is at least one relatively clear reference on the mural—Japan’s Mount Fuji, which was included upon Goldsmith’s suggestion.[9] The east wall of the mural is inscribed with a series of concentric loops encircling a central pitted form (fig. 4a). The paths of the loops become more erratic as they radiate outwards, seemingly responding to variations in the surface. These graphic inscriptions recall the elevation rings of topographical maps. When compared with contemporaneous topographical maps of Mount Fuji (figs. 4b, 4c) there are visible similarities with the mural, such as the placement of a secondary peak to the upper left, but it is also clear Duckworth took considerable artistic liberties. For instance, the mural’s loops are much more circular than the map’s elevation rings and have a consistent scalloped pattern that is absent on the map.

Figure 4a: Image of east wall of Ruth Duckworth’s Earth, Water, and Sky, 1968.

Figure 4b: topographical map of Volcano Huzi (Fuji) from “42. Fundamental Research for Predicting Volcanic Eruptions (Part 2),” 1969.

Figure 4c: topographic illustration of Mount Fuji, its actual form are shown in contours lines (thick lines) in comparison with concentric circles (thin lines), from: Tsuya, Hiromichi, and Chishitsu Chōsajo (Japan). Geology of Volcano Mt. Fuji. Kawasak: Geological Survey of Japan, 1968.

In addition to topographical maps, a University of Chicago meteorologist provided Duckworth with slides of satellite images and aerial views of landscapes.[10] While aerial photography had existed in some form since the invention of the hot-air balloon in the mid-nineteenth century, the specific type of high-altitude imagery that Duckworth consulted only became available in the late 1950s—beginning with the launch of the first human-made satellites in 1957 and 1958 by the Soviet Union and the United States respectively, which marked the beginning of the Space Race. Many scholars have discussed the cultural impact of aerial and space photography.[11] Its significance can be understood when considered in contrast to traditional landscape painting and photography, where a horizon line decisively marks the boundary between earth and sky, mimicking the perspective of a person looking out across a landscape. In aerial images, the horizon line is absent and the clear boundary between earth and sky is consequently eliminated, as it is in Earth, Water, and Sky. Similar to early images from NASA spacecraft (fig 5a), Duckworth’s mural collapses geomorphic, hydrologic, and atmospheric phenomena onto a common picture plane (fig. 5b). The mural, therefore, places viewers in a perspectival position analogous to that of a satellite viewing Earth from above. Yet unlike satellite photography, Duckworth’s mural encompasses its viewers in its image-space, as if it were an inverted globe.

Figure 5a: Tibetan Lake Country North of Katmandu, west of Ihasa, photographed from the Mercury-Atlas 9, 1963.

Figure 5b: Ruth Duckworth Earth, Water, and Sky, 1968-69. Photograph by Jack Schneider.

With new perspectives of the Earth enabled by the aerospace technology of the 1950s and 60s came new understandings of the planet. Reflecting on his time viewing Earth from high orbit, the astronaut Frank Borman noted that “raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence, don’t show from that distance […] We are one hunk of ground, water, air, clouds, floating around in space. From out there it really is ‘one world’,” a somewhat ironic statement given that Borman was on the front lines of the Cold War’s Space Race.[12] The debut issue of countercultural stalwart Steward Brand’s influential Whole Earth Catalog (fig. 6) reviewed dozens of texts that espoused similar and related worldviews—from aerial photography books, to publications on environmentalism, cybernetics, Indigenous lifeways, and eastern spirituality—indexing a rising interest in perspectives and ideologies that emphasized unity and interconnectedness.[13] The creation of the interdisciplinary Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago could also be considered in the context of this technological, perspectival, and cultural shift, especially given the department’s contracts with NASA.

Duckworth’s own understanding of the world, it would seem, was possibly affected by this shift as well. In an entry from her unpublished personal journals, she wrote: “There is only one-ness, all else is words and pain and senseless reasons. The stars and the dust, the man and the woman, the bird and the tiger, the child and a grown man’s feeble intelligence.”[14] Here, Duckworth proposes that the boundaries between natural phenomena are not as distinct as convention suggests. Rather, she contends that all natural phenomena, including humans, are part of some seamless one-ness.

Figure 6: Fall 1968 issue of Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, featuring an image of the Earth taken by the ATS III Weather Satellite.

Duckworth’s representation of nature in Earth, Water, and Sky aligns with this notion. The mural’s depictions of mountains, valleys, lakes, and clouds blend together, alluding to a holistic system of which they are a part. Duckworth directly connected this worldview to her mural in an interview, saying “this work made me look at the sky and think of the heavens, and that really put me in the context of thought that all of these forces and those of the world we live in grow from a common energy.”[15] Here, it seems that Duckworth’s understanding of nature may have actually been informed by the process of creating the mural. One can picture her in the studio conceptualizing this principle of “common energy” while sculpting the various forms depicted in Earth, Water, and Sky out of one common earthen material. Indeed, as a ceramicist, Duckworth crafted nearly all her work from humble clay. It also seems likely that Duckworth’s worldview was affected by the broad countercultural currents of the 1960s and seventies, including the appropriation of certain aspects of Indigenous cosmologies and eastern spiritual systems.[16]

It is clear that Duckworth had a strong reverence for the environment and that she was especially concerned about the effect of human activity on its livelihood. In 1977, she wrote “I love living creatures […] and sometimes I feel saddened thinking about their futures and the future of our planet. I have an intense concern for nature—our environment and what we do to it.”[17] Until now, I have described the forms of Earth, Water, and Sky as representative of natural phenomena, but given Duckworth’s stated concern with the human impact on the planet, the work may also be regarded as indexing human activity. Surely, every inch of the mural bears Duckworth’s touch. She painstakingly sculpted the mural one wall at a time, racing to finish before the clay dried, then glazing and cutting each roughly 10 by 10 foot slab into smaller pieces to fit the kiln. Once fired and reassembled, the seams between the individual tiles create a grid that slices through the otherwise organic imagery, recalling cartographic systems used to rationalize otherwise unwieldy land and seascapes. With her depiction of Mount Fuji, the grid seems to evoke coordinate systems of latitude and longitude, which often accompany elevation rings on topographical maps. Beyond the evocation of maps, some of the mural’s forms could alternately be read as portraying human incursion in the landscape. For instance, forms resembling mountainous ridges might instead be regarded as plow marks in a field, and crater-like pit forms could either be regarded as the results of meteor impacts or bomb detonations. In her discussions of Earth, Water, and Sky, Duckworth only ever mentions natural phenomena, but the mural’s forms are just abstract enough to allow for multiple readings.

Figure 7: Duckworth with Maquette for “Earth, Water, and Sky” (1968-69).

Although Duckworth’s interest in environmentalism and her artwork’s formal connections to nature are clear, she struggled to reconcile her environmental concerns with her practice. While Duckworth avidly donated to environmentalist groups such as the Nature Conservancy— apparently much to the chagrin of her accountant—she was uncertain whether her ceramics could contain or convey the way she felt about the environment.[18] In a 1993 artist statement, Duckworth wrote “the Earth is so fragile and beautiful, it needs so much love and caring and not just by me. Can I express any of that in my work? I really don’t know.”[19] In an interview one year later she elaborated: “I think that my work is not as important to the world as I used to think it was. I think what is really important is the survival of the planet. These ecological issues feel very large for me.”[20] Evidently, when confronted with an understanding of the threats facing the environment in the twentieth century, Duckworth felt that her focus on her art practice was myopic and maybe even selfish. However, in the same interview, Duckworth recalled a turning point in her thinking on the divide between her work and ecological concerns, saying: “I’ve had friends tell me to forget trying to save the earth by myself, that my work is a contribution.”[21] At a certain point, then, Duckworth apparently considered the possibility that her environmentalism and her art practice need not be mutually exclusive, that she could address her environmental concerns with her art.

To this point, it is telling that Duckworth closed her journal entry on the oneness of the world by insisting once again on the unity of all things: “One, all one, but not aware of this oneness.”[22] Her assertion that people are unaware of the oneness of the world perhaps signals what she hoped her artwork could engender in her audience: an awareness of themselves as part of a larger whole, the earth. With this, we can turn back to Earth, Water, and Sky and see what Duckworth was seemingly reluctant to claim for it: an artwork that expresses the artist’s reverence for nature, and is perhaps even capable of inspiring its viewers to share in her love and care for the planet. While Duckworth’s exact intentions for the mural remain unknown, the mural can be understood as evidence of the way she saw the world around her, a unified vision of nature that every student, staff member, and visitor encounters as they enter the Henry Hinds Laboratory of Geophysical Sciences. Moreover, it seems that the process of working on the commission may itself have informed Duckworth’s worldview. By first spending countless hours studying land, sea, and skyscapes, then reforming the diverse formations of the natural world out of a single material, Duckworth’s notion of the underlying harmony of all things crystalized. Ultimately, of all the work in her oeuvre, Earth, Water, and Sky is arguably the best representation of Duckworth’s particular understanding of nature: “I think of life as a unity. This includes mountains, mice, rocks, trees, women, and men. It’s all one big lump of clay.”[23]

[1] Ruth Duckworth quoted in Dennis Loy, The First Union League Club of Chicago Art Invitational (Chicago: Union League Club, 1993).

[2] Duckworth’s Earth, Water, and Sky is installed in the entryway foyer of the Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences at 5734 S Ellis Ave, Chicago, IL 60637. The building is currently only accessible to University of Chicago students, but parts of the mural can be seen through the front door.

[3] Ruth Duckworth: A Life in Clay (dir. Karen Carter, 2004)

[4] Jo Lauria and Tony Birks, Ruth Duckworth: Modernist Sculptor (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2004), 50.

[5] The Geophysical Sciences Building / University of Chicago. Pamphlet. 1966.

[6] University of Chicago. Office of the President. Levi Administration. Records, [Box 67, Folder 1], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

[7] Ruth Duckworth papers, 1936-2005. Microfilm from material lent in 1977 by Ruth Duckworth, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[8] University of Chicago. Office of the President. Levi Administration. Records, [Box 67, Folder 1], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

[9] Lauria and Birks50

[10] Ibid., 50.

[11] For example, see Lisa Parks, Cultures in orbit: satellites and the televisual (Durham : Duke University Press, 2015).

[12] Frank Borman, “A Science Fiction World—Awesome Forlorn Beauty.” Life Magazine (January 17, 1969): 28.

[13] For a critical examination of the Whole Earth Catalogue, its cultural context and impact, see Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke (eds.), The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013).

[14] Ruth Duckworth quoted in Ruth Duckworth and Alice Westphal, Ruth Duckworth (Chicago: Exhibit A, Gallery of American Ceramics, 1977).

[15] Harrie A. Vanderstappen, “Ruth Duckworth Life Becomes Sculpture,” American Craft 51, no. 5 (1991): 34-39.

[16] For a critical analysis of the counter-culture’s appropriation of Indigenous cultures, see Philip Joseph Deloria, “Countercultural Indians and the New Age,” Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). For an account of how the “oneness hypothesis” of eastern spiritual traditions influenced Western philosophy, see Philip J. Ivanhoe, Owen J. Flanagan, Victoria S. Harrison, Hagop Sarkissian, and Eric Schwitzgebel (eds.), The Oneness Hypothesis: Beyond the Boundary of Self (Columbia University Press, 2018).

[17]Ruth Duckworth quoted in Heinz Spielmann, “Ruth Duckworth at 75,” Special Collections at the Regenstein Library.

[18] Duckworth said “I pay out a lot of money every year [. . .] to the organizations that I think can make a difference, like the Nature Conservancy and so on and so forth. I wish I had more money, and then I could pay one organization so much that I could, you know, be of more influence than what I am.  But the first year the accountant looks at my books, she said, “Does Ruth know what she’s doing?”” From: Duckworth, Ruth. “Oral History Interview with Ruth Duckworth.” Interview by Kenneth Trapp. Smithsonian Archives or American Art (2001).

[19] Ruth Duckworth quoted in Loy, The First Union League Club of Chicago Art Invitational (Chicago: Union League Club, 1993).

[20] Judith Raphael, “Ruth Duckworth,” Art Journal 53, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 43.

[21] Ibid.,

[22] Ruth Duckworth quoted in Duckworth and Westphal.

[23] Duckworth, Ruth, Martyl and Debora Duez Donato. Ruth Duckworth and Martyl : paintings, drawings, and sculpture (Chicago: State of Illinois Art Gallery, 1990), 12.

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