Ruth Duckworth’s masterpiece “Clouds Over Lake Michigan” joins UChicago’s collection of public art
The gift from Cboe Global Markets brings Duckworth’s groundbreaking mural to the institution that introduced her to Chicago nearly 60 years ago.
In 1974, executives at Dresdner Bank thought they would find an up-and-coming young male sculptor to create a mural for the German financial institution’s Chicago office. Fortunately, they commissioned Ruth Duckworth instead. When the resulting work, Clouds Over Lake Michigan, is installed in its new home in the first-floor reading room of the Joseph Regenstein Library on the University of Chicago’s campus in 2023, the acquisition will be a homecoming of sorts: while the piece hasn’t been seen at UChicago before, its creator spent many years on campus, making important contributions to her field and the University.
The mural comes to UChicago thanks to a generous gift from Cboe Global Markets. The global financial exchange operator first took possession of Clouds Over Lake Michigan when Dresdner Bank closed its Chicago offices in 1984 and Cboe moved the piece to its then-headquarters at 400 S. LaSalle. In 2021, Cboe relocated its headquarters from LaSalle Street to the newly renovated Old Post Office, and in 2022 moved its trading floor to the Chicago Board of Trade Building, where it was located in the 1970s and 1980s.
Without enough uninterrupted wall space to allow Cboe to bring the massive Clouds Over Lake Michigan with them, the artwork needed a new home. Eager to do right by its creator, Cboe contacted the Duckworth Estate, who decided that due to the artist’s significant relationship with the University, UChicago should be approached first.
“For nearly 40 years, Clouds Over Lake Michigan greeted our associates and trading floor members on a daily basis and as such, has been well-loved by many in the Cboe community,” says Marc Magrini, Vice President, Cboe Facilities. “Cboe is proud of its Chicago roots, and we are excited that this artwork can remain in the city it was created to honor.”
The University was delighted by the offer and immediately began making plans to welcome Clouds Over Lake Michigan to its new home as part of the permanent public art collection in the heart of its Hyde Park campus—plans that include an upcoming exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art, Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity.
“UChicago has a fine collection of public art installed around its campus, including perennial favorite Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy and Jene Highstein’s newly installed Black Sphere,” said Laura Steward, Curator of Public Art, “but we have lacked a major piece for the Regenstein reading room until now. The Regenstein’s architect, Walter Netsch, has emphasized the importance of art in libraries.
In addition to the work itself, Cboe has made a significant financial gift that will facilitate installation, cleaning, conservation, and research into the piece. Removing the work from Cboe was no easy task: the 65 tiles that comprise the work were mortared into the wall and had to be painstakingly excavated. Professional conservators have worked together to restore the piece to its original brilliance before it is placed on public display in the Regenstein’s reading room.
"Libraries like Regenstein are simultaneously places for intense study and research and sources of inspiration and community,” said Torsten Reimer, University Librarian and Dean of the University Library. “The creation of knowledge and the inspiration of art have always been closely linked, and we are delighted to highlight this connection by displaying Ruth Duckworth’s Clouds Over Lake Michigan prominently at the entrance of the Regenstein Library."
About Clouds Over Lake Michigan
Steward describes Clouds Over Lake Michigan as “majestic.” Comprised of 65 individual clay tiles, the mural is 9 feet tall and 23 feet wide, “fluidly blending representation and abstraction, with an aerial view of the southern tip of Lake Michigan and its watershed as its origin point. Bright blue glazes on the lake and rivers meet the warm colors of rocks and earth,” writes Steward.
When Duckworth was commissioned by Dresdner Bank, she had just three weeks to create prototype designs. She created three, sent photographs of each to Munich, and the leaders opted for the piece with ties to the Chicago landscape. Inspired by photos of Chicagoland and Lake Michigan taken from space, Duckworth said the piece reflects “Chicago as a pre-Columbian city” and pulls inspiration from a 12,000-mile trip she took across the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala. “And then there are different types of clouds,” said Duckworth. “There’s some clouds that look like hundreds, thousands of mushrooms.”
From beginning to build the maquette – the small, preliminary model that serves as a kind of first draft of a large-scale piece like this one – to the final installation of Clouds Over Lake Michigan, Duckworth estimated she spent just four months on the project. The work is an even more spectacular accomplishment given this tight timeframe and the fact that this was only Duckworth’s second large-scale mural.
About Ruth Duckworth
Duckworth (born Ruth Windmüller) was born in 1919 in Hamburg, Germany. As Hitler came to power, The Nuremburg laws and her father’s Jewish heritage banned Duckworth from attending art school in Germany and, ultimately, forced her to flee her home country. Duckworth began her formal training at the Liverpool College of Art in 1936, but she had already spent her girlhood drawing, often while confined to her bed by childhood illnesses.
By the time she arrived in England, her taste had expanded to other mediums: “I want to paint like Rembrandt, draw like Durer, and sculpt like Michelangelo,” she told her instructors. They tried to make her choose just one, but Duckworth was rarely interested in doing what others thought she should. From 1956 to 1958, Duckworth attended London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts to study ceramics. She began working primarily with clay, at the time still considered a material used for crafts. Her determination and success in elevating clay to fine art is an example of her singular vision and dogged determination to do as she pleased, no matter what conventional wisdom had to say about it.
Shortly after her arrival in the US, Duckworth had her first solo exhibition at the Renaissance Society, also on the UChicago campus. Her work intrigued Julian Goldsmith, Dean of the Geophysical Sciences department, who was also an art collector. He bought one of her pieces and ultimately commissioned her to create her first large-scale sculptural mural: Earth, Water, Sky is a massive, immersive piece that covers four walls and the ceiling of the Hines Geophysical Laboratory atrium. While the piece was still in process, Goldsmith wrote to alumni in 1966 with an update, saying, “As one walks into the building, he will pass through its essence. […] I think it will be stunning, for not only do I consider Mrs. Duckworth to be one of the world’s leading art-ceramicists, but she has spent a great deal of time prowling in our library and looking at rocks, minerals, landscapes, waves, and weather, on our behalf.” The fascination with geomorphology she gained during her “prowl” would influence her work for the rest of her career.
Duckworth never remarried, believing that she couldn’t simultaneously be “hitched up with another man” and pursue her life as an artist. Creating living/studio space in a former pickle factory in Pilsen and later a loft in Lakeview, Duckworth loved and remained in Chicago until her death in 2005 at age 90.
Life as a Unity: Smart Museum Exhibition
Through an upcoming exhibition, the Smart Museum of Art will continue the celebration of Ruth Duckworth’s life, work, and relationship with UChicago. Focusing on Duckworth’s self-description as a sculptor with clay (as opposed to a potter or ceramicist), Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity (September 21, 2023–February 4, 2024) centers this perspective and will explore the influence of geomorphology and the environmental movement on Duckworth’s work.
“Duckworth immersed herself in the intellectual and cultural landscape of Chicago, and it fundamentally changed her practice,” said Vanja Malloy, Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum. “I’m thrilled that the monumental mural Clouds Over Lake Michigan will be re-sited at UChicago in conjunction with this exhibition. It offers a unique opportunity to examine how Duckworth unified disparate interests through her art, making something wholly her own through deep engagements with modern sculpture, the latest scientific advances on campus, and the wider natural world.”
Public Art at UChicago
From the giant Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza to the murals that enliven spaces under elevated train tracks in Rogers Park and Englewood, Chicago is rich with public art. At UChicago, a unique public art collection features intriguing and arresting works spread across the flagship Hyde Park campus. The collection extends the intellectual life of the University beyond classrooms, libraries, and labs, and into the everyday spaces that shape the experiences of UChicago’s students, faculty, and visitors. A public art walking tour map is available on the University’s website, with shuttles and CTA buses supporting a trek to the various featured sites.
In the last moment of the 2002 documentary Ruth Duckworth: A Life in Clay, the artist reflects on the question of her legacy: “I haven’t really thought about that one,” she admits. “‘How will I be remembered?’ Maybe I should start.” At the University of Chicago, Duckworth is remembered as an important and innovative force who elevated sculpting with clay to a fine art. With the addition of Clouds Over Lake Michigan to its permanent public art collection, the University aims to continue to celebrate and amplify Duckworth’s place in the art history made on, for, and beyond its campus.
Visiting Clouds Over Lake Michigan
Once the conservation and installation of the work is complete, the public will again be able to visit Clouds Over Lake Michigan as they did for decades in its downtown Chicago sites. The piece will be partially visible from the main entrance of the Regenstein. Visitors are welcome and can visit the ID & Privileges Office or the Regenstein circulation desk to obtain a visitor’s pass to enter and see this work.
This article first appeared in In Practice: The UChicago Arts Blog.