Ruth Duckworth was born Ruth Windmüller in Hamburg, Germany in 1919. She began drawing at a young age and left Germany for England in the mid-1930s, fleeing the Nazis. She attended the Liverpool College of Art from 1936 to 1940, studying painting and drawing. Throughout the 1940s, she took various jobs as a puppeteer, tombstone carver, working in a munitions factory and even spent some time working in Lucie Rie’s ceramic studio.
In the early 1940s, she enrolled in the City and Guilds of London Art School, shifting her focus to sculpture; explaining the change, Duckworth later said that “there’s no material that so effectively communicates both fragility and strength.” In the late 1940s she continued her studies at the Anglo-French Art Center in Kensington, where she met her soon-to-be husband, sculptor Aidron Duckworth. They worked on their first commission together in 1948, creating fourteen bas-relief limestone carvings for St. Joseph’s Church in New Malden, England.
Duckworth's early sculptural work was representational but she soon turned to abstraction and organic forms that were influenced by both prehistoric and modern imagery, as well as nature and human relationships. Inspired by a museum exhibition she saw of Indian pottery, she continued her studies at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London from 1956 to 1958, turning more seriously to porcelain ceramics. At the time, ceramics in England were still quite traditional in style and functional in form, and her organic, hand-shaped, surrealist works were misunderstood by audiences at-large, but celebrated by fellow artists and ceramicists.
In 1960 she had her first solo show at Primavera Gallery, London and was shown in the exhibition British Studio Potters with Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. Her work was gaining attention and prestige among the ceramic community. In the early 1960s, she had several shows in Chicago, taught at University of Chicago in 1964 and in 1965 the Congregation Solel synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois commissioned her to design a menorah. After the positive reception of her work in the United States, Duckworth permanently relocated to Chicago in 1966 feeling there would be better opportunities for teaching and commission work.
During her twenty-three-year tenure teaching at University of Chicago, Duckworth brought some excellent public art to the university and the city, including the mural Earth, Water and Sky (1967-68) in the Geophysical Sciences Building, Clouds Over Lake Michigan (1976) at the Chicago Board Options Exchange Building, and large bronze works at various college campuses. Duckworth had proven that she was adept at making both monumental works and small, intimate pieces. She retired from the University of Chicago in 1977 but continued to actively show and teach around the world throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
In 2005, The Museum of Arts & Design in New York hosted a retrospective of her work, Ruth Duckworth: Modernist Sculptor and had solo shows at institutions such as the Cranbrook Museum of Art (2005), Bellas Artes Gallery, Santa Fe (2010, 2013) and the Minneapolis Institute of Art (2006). Her work is held in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. In 1993 she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the gold medal from the National Society of Arts and Letters in 1996 and the gold medal for Lifetime Achievement from the American Craft Council in 1997. Duckworth passed away in 2009 in her adopted home of Chicago.