“As a sculptor and printmaker, she was probably the most important female African-American artist in the United States.”
-Kathleen Edwards, University of Iowa Museum of Art Curator
On July 28, 2017, the University of Iowa dedicated a new student residence hall to renowned artist and alumna Elizabeth Catlett, and in doing so, made a stand to the principles that she lived by, the powerful statements that she evoked through her art - art that demonstrated her humanity, art about the dignity of people, of all people. The opening of the Elizabeth Catlett Residence hall marks the legacy that she and other African American students in 1940 were to earn the very first Master of Fine Arts Degrees in the United States. It also marks the paramount event that she was to become the first Black woman to earn a Master of Fine Arts Degree in America.
Since 1885, The University of Iowa, has upheld a long tradition for being the first public university in the United States to admit men and women on an equal basis. Its the world's first university to accept creative work in theater, writing, music, and art on an equal basis within the realm of academic research.
My mother experienced discrimination throughout her life and academic career. In the early 1930s, her application to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh was rejected because she was African American, and although the U of I accepted African American students during a time when many institutions throughout the country refused to do so, the university housing remained closed to African Americans. While she was enrolled at U of I from 1938–40, Black students were not allowed entrance to the Student Union or most Iowa City restaurants. So, in response to the present segregation, she would sometimes cook and wait tables for meals at Vivian’s Chicken Shack, a restaurant opened by fellow African American alumni, Vivian Trent. Elizabeth Catlett lived off campus in a home sponsored by the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. It was there that she roomed with life time friend and colleague, renowned African American Poet, Margaret Walker. Years later, in 1992, Catlett would illustrate Walker’s legendary poem “For My People” in a series of colorful prints depicting the strength and endurance of the work.
"For my people everywhere
Singing their slave songs repeatedly
Their dirges and ditties
Their blues and jubilees..."
- Margaret Walker
During her enrollment at U of I, Catlett studied drawing and painting with Grant Wood and studied sculpture with Henry Stinson during an era that saw new racial openness, even while aspects of segregation severely continued. It was also here that Grant Wood encouraged my mother to create art about what she knew best - that her subjects be those with which she was extremely familiar. For my mother, the subject of her art became her experiences as a Black woman in a segregated world dominated by white men.
My mother is quoted in saying “Grant Wood was a very generous teacher, and he influenced my work, ” Elizabeth Catlett. With the support of Wood, she received the first Master of Fine Arts Degree earned in sculpture at U of I. The centerpiece of her thesis exhibition, a stone carving “Negro Mother and Child”, is a marvelous understanding of the power that form can convey feeling. This work won the First Award in Sculpture at the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago.
But we would not have a complete image of Elizabeth Catlett without mentioning the life time support that she received from my father, the Mexican painter and engraver, Francisco Mora. Their marriage endured for over 56 years, and their art disciplines were dedicated to illustrate the beauty and the struggle for human rights of African American people, Mexican people and all underprivileged people. They worked tirelessly all whilest raising three artists; my self and my two brothers, Juan Mora Catlett, the awarded Mexican filmmaker, and David Mora Catlett, the visual artist who also became my mother’s right hand on the intense production of her work in sculpture.
The opening of the Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall, represents solid proof that the belief and the fight for human rights and the dignity of all peoples may be a difficult and long path, but as it succeeds well beyond the short comings of prejudice, discrimination, racism, and stereotyping, it leaves us with a much richer legacy of life and the beauty that all of it can be.
Thank you very much Elizabeth Catlett, for your beautiful gift of art and your unwavering commitment to issues surrounding social justice. You were a warrior and made the world a better place in which to live. Let us each carry the torch of bringing education and opportunity to all future generations. Her memory is honored only when it can be said that we have helped build a world where equality of gender, race, class, and sexual identity are genuinely valued and when societies worldwide embrace the universal human spirit that her artwork so brilliantly captured.
Speech written by Francisco Mora-Catlett, delivered on July 28, 2017 at the University of Iowa Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall Dedication Ceremony
Related Links and Articles
University of Iowa celebrates opening of Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall
Madison Street Residence Hall will carry the name of renowned African American alumna
University of Iowa presents Alumna Elizabeth Catlett with UIMA chief curator Kathleen Edwards
"U of I Graduate College" online Publication