I first saw Ruth Duckworth’s work in 2007 at the James Renwick Museum in Washington, D.C. It was my first lesson in how photographs don’t tell the whole ceramic story. I wasn’t a big fan of sculptural ceramics and never much fancied modern or post-modern design. But after seeing her art in person, I was converted. As I walked through the gallery, each piece was richer and more complex in its simplicity. Before exiting the exhibit, there was a short film about Ruth. I don't normally watch these museum videos, but this time I couldn’t help myself. There she was, the little woman who-even in her 80s-was a spitfire. I wanted to know more about this woman. I was mesmerized by her story, her courage and her strength.
Watching this short documentary three years later, I was no less mesmerized. This video is not about technique. But it is a how-to, in that Duckworth shows a way to live as a potter. It takes guts and chutzpah, and a strong sense that anything is possible if you work hard enough.
Though Ruth left us last year, this video is an opportunity to sit down with her and pick her brain about the why and how of making. Growing up in Nazi Germany, she was sent to London to help her sister and go to art school. There she found her own way to art school, with the encouragement of her brother. Like any art student today, she was faced with what to do after art school. And like any resourceful person of that time, she cobbled together a living. She worked in a munitions plant. She carved headstones. She kept herself busy. But she eventually focused on sculpture.
She also grew up in a time when women were not valued in a man’s profession, and she was in a man’s profession. Her first commission was a result of her chutzpah. And that is the lesson of Ruth-don’t let the fact that you haven’t done something before stop you from doing it.
While you won’t learn pottery techniques in this video, it is a must have. There always seem to be days when you question why you are working in clay. Or art. On those days, pull out this DVD. You will soon find yourself running back to the studio to play in the clay. Title: Ruth Duckworth: A Life in ClayLength:
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