Ruth Duckworth's Clay Creations

Ruth Duckworth, an artist who's been breaking the mold for well over half a century, sculptes a new work in her studio.
At 87, Ruth Duckworth is at the pinnacle of her career. About 80 of her smaller clay sculptures are on exhibit in a traveling show, now at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. But when she began as a young artist, she had difficulty deciding on a medium.

"I went for this interview at the art school, and he said, 'What do you want to do, drawing or painting or sculpture?'" she told Sunday Morning correspondent Serena Altschul. "I said, 'I want to do drawing and painting and sculpture.' She said, 'No, no, you can't do that.' I said, 'Michelangelo did.' And he said, 'She's crazy.'"

She eventually settled on sculpture and has enjoyed a successful career spanning six decades. Most of her sculptures are abstract, shaped in stone, porcelain and bronze. All of them are untitled. She says she wants people "to have their own fantasy or ideas about it and not mine."

One might think that ideas for her murals and sculptures are born in her studio, an old pickle factory on the north side of Chicago. There, Duckworth works tirelessly every day, making innumerable small models in clay. But in fact, her ideas really take root in her courtyard garden where she spends two hours each morning.

"I like it," she said. "I really get sick of clay sometimes."

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Duckworth was the youngest of five children.

"And four of them were intellectually very clever and I hated school, Latin, grammar," Duckworth said. "My oldest sibling was a brother. He was seven years older. And he said to me when I was about 19, 'You want to be an artist? Be one. I will always look after you.' And two years later he was dead. He was on a ship that was sunk by a Japanese u-boat in the Second World War."

Banned from art school in Germany, Duckworth fled to England. She carved tombstones for a living, and worked in a munitions factory making bullets during the war.

"Because I wanted to beat Hitler. I was very naïve, and my father's Jewish," she said. "I polished the die in which the bullets were cast. And so I was always working with the bullet shape."

After the war she met her husband at a party. They were married for 17 years, but later divorced.

"We had four absolutely marvelous months. And I thought, well, then we might as well get married, no? So we got married," she said. "And the next day he wasn't the same person — changed. And he never changed back again. Part of being a workaholic was due to a not very successful marriage. So you have all this time — do something with it.