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ELIZABETH CATLETT 1915-2012

One of the most important American artists of the past century, Elizabeth Catlett is honored as a foremother by subsequent generations. In the United States and in Mexico, where she resided for over sixty years, she produced an unparalleled body of politically charged and aesthetically compelling graphic and sculptural images that were grounded in what she regarded as the historically based necessity to render visible that which had not been the subject of art. She followed the advice of Grant Wood, her graduate school mentor, that she “take as her subject what she knew best” as she dedicated herself to making art primarily for African American – and later Mexican – audiences, determined to give voice to the enduring dignity, strength, and achievements of black women and other oppressed peoples.

Elizabeth Catlett was born in Washington, DC on April 15, 1915. Her father, a professor of mathematics at the Tuskegee Institute, died several months before her birth. Her mother, educated as a teacher, worked as a truant officer in Washington’s public schools. From her grandmothers Catlett heard stories of slavery; from her mother she heard about the realities of life in the slums of the nation’s capital. These narratives shaped her early awareness of the suffering and exploitation of black people in the United States, and laid the groundwork for her artistic vision. As a young girl she knew she wanted to be an artist, though few African American women were practicing artists and art museums in the South were closed to African Americans.

 
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Following her graduation from Washington's Dunbar High School in 1931 she entered Howard University, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Art, cum laude, in 1935. The Howard University Art Department was a locus of debate that encompassed aesthetics, imagery, and the sources of inspiration to which African American artists should rightfully attend. Catlett studied art history with James Herring, design with Lois Mailou Jones, printmaking with James Lesnesne Wells, and painting and life drawing with James Porter, who she credited with introducing her to the discipline necessary to be an artist. After teaching for two years in the public schools in Durham, North Carolina, and participating with lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall in an unsuccessful effort to gain equal pay for black teachers, she decided to attend graduate school in art at the University of Iowa.

Catlett went to Iowa to study painting with Grant Wood, but soon became interested in sculpture. Nonetheless, Wood’s mentorship was significant. His attention to formal composition and his methodical process of working and reworking an image remained vital to her approach, as did his encouragement that her subjects be those with which she was intimately familiar. With Wood's support, in 1940 Catlett received the first Master of Fine Arts degree earned in sculpture at the University of Iowa. The centerpiece of her thesis exhibition, a limestone Negro Mother and Child, demonstrates her early understanding of the power of form to convey feeling. Now lost, Negro Mother and Child won the First Award in Sculpture at the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago.

From 1940 until 1942 Catlett taught drawing, painting, printmaking, and art history at Dillard University in New Orleans. Her impact on her students was transformative; determined that her students see a major Picasso retrospective at the Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art), located in City Park where African Americans were not allowed, she arranged to have her students bused to the museum’s entrance on a day when it was closed to the (white) public. Most of her students – including the eminent art historian and artist, and a lifelong friend, Samella Lewis - had never been to an art museum.

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Between her first and second year at Dillard, Catlett spent the summer of 1941 in Chicago. She lived with Margaret Burroughs (then Margaret Goss), who was among the founders of the South Side Community Art Center that had opened earlier that year. She studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago and lithography at the South Side Community Art Center, and resumed her work in sculpture. In Chicago, Catlett experienced for the first time a community of socially engaged and politically active artists who were committed to producing art for social change. She and Charles White, whom she had met on a previous visit to Chicago, married at the end of 1941.

The following year Catlett and White moved to New York and became absorbed into the milieu of the City’s leading African American artists, musicians, and progressive intellectuals. Catlett worked in the studio of modernist sculptor Ossip Zadkine, recently arrived in New York as a refugee from the Nazi occupation of France. Zadkine introduced her to cubist-derived abstraction which, in turn, enabled her to apprehend in a new way the nuanced abstraction of African art. Most significant for the future direction of her art was her work as promotion director and instructor of sculpture and sewing at the George Washington Carver People’s School, a night school for the working people of Harlem. Her realization of ways in which her students’ lives were shaped by their economic circumstances deepened her awareness of the privileges afforded her by her own education and class, and she was deeply moved by what she termed the “cultural hunger” of the women with whom she worked at the Carver School.

Inspired by her students, Catlett sought a Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to produce a series of prints, paintings, and sculpture on the subject of "The Negro Woman." During the first year of her Rosenwald Fellowship she remained at the Carver School; when her grant was renewed for a second year she realized she would have to leave New York in order to complete her proposed series. With an interest in the murals and graphic art produced in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, she and White went to Mexico in 1946. After several months she returned to the United States to end this marriage, and then went back to Mexico to establish permanent residence.

During her initial sojourn in Mexico City Catlett studied with noted Mexican sculptor Francisco Zúñiga at “La Esmeralda,” the government-run art school, and began to make prints as a guest artist at Mexico’s internationally recognized Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Arts Workshop). Produced at this workshop in 1946-47, The Negro Woman (later renamed The Black Woman) is the best-known component of Catlett’s Rosenwald project. This series of fifteen linocuts acknowledges the harsh reality of black women’s labor, honors renowned historical heroines, and renders visible the fears, struggles, and achievements of ordinary African American women.

Catlett’s decision to make her home in Mexico was in part a response to the Cold War escalation of U.S. government attacks on progressive artists, intellectuals, and activists following the end of World War II. She also found a community of artists at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) whose aims were in accord with her own, and she fell in love with one of the workshop’s members, painter and printmaker Francisco Mora (1922-2002). Catlett and Mora married in 1947. She became a member of the TGP, embraced the workshop’s collective process, and adopted their audience as her own. She and Mora were members of the TGP until 1966, and they remained artistic and life partners until Mora’s death.

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As she and Mora raised their three sons – Francisco, born in 1947, Juan, born in 1949, and David, born in 1951 – Catlett’s immersion in Mexican life and culture fostered her recognition of commonalities and convergences among African American and Mexican peoples’ histories and experiences. She also grew increasingly aware of mestizaje, the blending of indigenous, Spanish, and African ancestries shared by many in Mexico. Her intricately textured linocuts and lithographs rendered with rich tonality are consistent with the work of the TGP’s most accomplished printmakers. These include images of working women, urban laborers and campesinos, children working and caring for smaller children, homeless children in the city, and indigenous children in the country; and African American mothers, workers, ordinary people, and historical heroines. In Sharecropper, initially a black-and-white linoleum cut of the early 1950s (some early proofs also include experiments with color), subtly varied, closely spaced hatchings demarcating contour, pattern, material, and texture reflect the fluency she developed as a printmaker at the TGP. Characteristic of her portrayal of strong, dignified black women, the expressionistic angularity of the woman’s careworn face and the monumentality of the image’s compositional focus are emblematic of the respect Catlett felt her subject deserved.

Catlett returned to sculpture in 1955 as a student of wood carver José L. Ruiz. In 1959 she became the first woman sculpture professor in the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Her male colleagues initially opposed her appointment on the grounds that she was a woman, a foreigner, that she would only teach African sculpture (she had invited a guest lecturer to give a slide talk on this topic), and that she was inept; she was particularly annoyed by the latter of these. Ultimately she gained her colleagues’ respect, and taught sculpture at the National University until 1975; many of her students became well-known artists in Mexico.

Evident in Catlett’s sculpture is her abiding love for form, and the ways that materials can be manipulated and finished to celebrate their physical properties and enhance sculptural form. She exploited the elasticity of clay in ceramic figures that appear to swell and breathe from within, and incorporated into the elegant curves and angular planes of her carvings the patterns of wood grain and the roughness, sheen, or translucency of different types of stone. Most often figurative, Catlett’s sculpture is simultaneously informed by African and pre-Hispanic Mexican sources, more recent Mexican sculpture, and modernist abstraction – which, she consistently noted, has roots in African sculpture. Because she intended that her sculpture speak to ordinary people she maintained her commitment to the visual accessibility of realism. But the eloquence of her most effective sculpture comes from her abstraction of form to a powerful, focused essence.

In 1962 Catlett became a Mexican citizen. Based upon her apparent political affiliations she was subsequently denied entry to the United States until 1971, when she was granted a visa to attend the opening of her solo show at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Though she was barred from her country of origin, during the 1960s her work proclaimed solidarity with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and particularly emphasized the role of women in these movements. In January 1970 her work was featured in Ebony magazine in an article titled “My Art Speaks for Both My Peoples,” bringing her increased visibility and numerous invitations to exhibit her work in the United States.

Catlett’s retirement from teaching in 1975 meant that she could devote more time to her art. Her prints and sculpture continued to make visible the experiences of African American women and children, and to call for justice for African Americans and other oppressed peoples. As she experimented with various printmaking processes she drew upon the consummate mastery of graphic techniques she developed at Taller de Gráfica Popular, and upon the expertise of master printers at key printmaking workshops. Her sculptural representations of women, in wood, stone, and clay, sometimes cast in bronze, are passionate, determined, resilient, and celebratory - mothers, workers, and survivors. These figures manifest the sensitivity to form and the deep engagement with the tactile substance of her materials that accrued throughout her lifetime of practice as a sculptor.

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In her 1961 keynote address to the Third Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Negro Artists in Washington, DC, Catlett had issued this call: “Are we here to communicate? Are we here for cultural interchange? Then let us not be narrow. Let us not be small or selfish. Let us aspire to be as great in our communication as the forefathers of our people whose struggles made our being here possible…”¹ Elizabeth Catlett’s life was neither small nor selfish. In her later years she received major commissions, several honorary degrees, and numerous honors, and her work is now included in the collections of important museums in the United States. Even so, she maintained her kindness and generosity to aspiring and established artists and scholars, to community activists, and to her legions of admirers. Her U.S. citizenship was restored in 2002, rendering her a citizen of both the United States and Mexico. A fitting acknowledgement of Catlett’s achievement as an alumna of this institution, a large-scale version of Catlett’s Stepping Out of 2000 now stands in the Iowa Memorial Union at the University of Iowa. Accessible to all, this monumental figure strides forward proudly.

While she would not have hesitated to remind us that art alone cannot change the world, Elizabeth Catlett firmly believed that art can raise consciousness of injustice, expose abuses of power, and illuminate possibilities for social transformation. Throughout her life, she clearly articulated her commitment to justice for all oppressed peoples through eloquent and impassioned visual statements that resonate, as she said, “for liberation and for life.” Elizabeth Catlett died on April 2, 2012 at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. As an artist, educator, activist, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, she leaves a rich and powerful legacy. The loss of her presence among us will be felt by many.

Melanie Herzog is Professor of Art History at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. She is the author of Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico (University of Washington Press, 2000) and Elizabeth Catlett: In the Image of the People (Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, 2005).

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