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In Memoriam (with a Personal Story): Ruth Duckworth
October 23, 2009

A Ruth Duckworth sculpture adorns my bookcase.

Earlier this week I was saddened to read in an email that sculptor Ruth Duckworth had passed away at ninety on October 18th. We are frequently confronted with obituaries of artists that signify the end of an era. Just this year we’ve lost Andrew Wyeth, Merce Cunningham, Michael Jackson, and Irving Penn, among others. But Ruth held special significance for me, because I had planned several public programs to highlight her retrospective at the museum’s Renwick Gallery in 2006.

In September of that year, we listened with wonder as Ruth spoke to a standing-room-only crowd to open her exhibition. She outlined her journey from her childhood in Nazi Germany to her studio in a converted pickle factory in Chicago. She was dignified, intelligent, humorous, and amazingly intuitive. It was apparent that Ruth’s work resonated with everyone present. I was determined also to reach younger eyes and minds with my playfully dubbed, “Kids’ Clay Day,” which was scheduled for a Saturday in early October.

But as with most highly anticipated events, things never turn out how we expect them to. After some miscues that morning, I was a bit disheveled when the public began to trickle in. It was all I could do to muster a wan smile and offer the young visitors a nontoxic synthetic molding medium. Then I barely survived the tour to familiarize the kids with the exhibition, so they could mimic the artist’s forms with their own “clay.” I was about to consider the program a complete wash when I heard voices in the adjacent gallery and peeked around the corner to see an unannounced Ruth Duckworth and friends heading straight toward me.

She shuffled around the exhibition partition and with childlike delight uttered, “Oooh! What do we have here?” She dutifully picked up the spongy mass and began to knead it into one of her signature totemic figures. She marveled at the consistency of the medium and the multitude of colors with which she had to work before proudly presenting her creation to me with the bravado of a little girl who had made her first paper snowflake.

I’m pretty sure my mouth was agape as she walked away, leaving her gift in my hand and erasing all residual angst from my harried morning. I’m also certain that none of the kids understood that the artist herself had just passed through quietly and humbly. Sometimes I think I may have imagined the whole thing. So I’ve kept the “warm fuzzy” to myself, and still feel blessed every time I look at the miniature Duckworth original on my bookcase. We will miss you, Ruth!

Posted by Mandy on October 23, 2009


That event back in '06 sounds so magical. I wish I had the opportunity to hear the great lady speak. You're lucky to have that memento.

Interesting, it reminds me of the works exhibited at FIAC (Paris)

I was fortunate to study with Ruth when she came to teach for a semester at my school in 1978 or so. She was always working in her little adopted studio right between the undergrad and the grad studios. She never hesitated to be accessible, inquisitive and direct in her classes. She was a very private person, but was always encouraging and responsive when I gathered up the courage to ask her opinion of my work.

I will miss her tremendously. She was a huge female presence in a discipline that is mostly male. She taught me to continue working and playing at my art, no matter what.

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