Elizabeth Catlett and Francisco Mora were two of the most prolific artists of the 20th century. Their art transcended turmoil of the times and became a beacon of light and empowerment for people globally. Brought together by their passion to do so, they met in México City in 1946 and a year later in 1947, married. Their union became one of inspiration and love based upon shared ideals, visions, culture, art, technique, strength and compassion. The two artists shared 55 years of marriage and life, supporting one another in accomplishing the great feat of breathing life into a body of artwork that helped to shift the political and humane tendencies of the world.
What brings two people together with such commitment to life and to each other? What bridges the distance of mistrust that life’s pain conditions us to have? Suffering is a part of the human condition and humanity has ensured, within the believed nature of man, to inflict it upon each other by losing sight of each one another. Artists like Elizabeth Catlett and Francisco Mora were some of the most prolific thinkers, with the upmost compassion, who challenged the archaic thinking that it is man’s purest nature to harm one another. Their artwork and life’s work leaves a legacy which planted a brilliant seed that it is man’s true nature to give dignity to life through strength, determination, compassion and love.
But what constitutes love? In regard to speaking of a woman and man whom loved each other for 56 years, throughout some of modern history’s most horrific times, it begs us to ask ourselves the complexity of what love truly is.
The bond, life and artistic connection of Elizabeth Catlett and Francisco Mora, contests common western ideas of love’s misinterpreted notions of simplicity. Their lives and artistic mastery forces us to ask if love is more so the depth of what we come to understand as we give our hearts and souls to something that moves us intrinsically. We can conclude from their example, that love is a journey which forces us to question our own worth as human beings, what is taken from us, and moreover what we can give. Having lived through racism, sexism and poverty, in a time of social ills, wars and the like, one must think, and some of us may know, that it can be one of the most challenging things to give from ourselves when the sanctity of our lives are threatened.
Fight or flight? Their answer was to fight with courage and recognize self value and worth as a human beings despite the world around them, challenging it on every minute level and in every social over and undertone.
Dr. Catlett often told stories of her grandmother’s life as a slave and despite overcoming the social aftereffects of slavery again and again herself, Catlett was later rejected, despite talent and absolute capacity, from education. Professor Mora would recount stories of how he pained with the same hunger of poverty that filled the stomachs of so many working class people in his country, and have that hunger impair his ability to learn and live. They had to fight, and love on themselves more than society could around them. Their life example taught, that in loving yourself and testifying your life to its own brilliance and dignity, you are then able extend it to those around you. They put that into their artwork. There was no choice, be defeated or win in this endeavor.
The two met at a crucial moment in the shift of both their respective countries. The world was encountering a great transformation post World War II. The United States of America was still enforcing Jim Crow Laws and involvement in the Cold War, created attacks on artists, activists and free thinkers. Mexico having just joined the United Nations post World War II, was still in unrest on the unfair social divide towards rural farmers as the working class, of which the Mexican Revolution and subsequent Constitution of 1917 aimed to combat.
Understanding she had to remove herself from the social-political injustices in the United States to pursue her art, Dr. Catlett moved to Mexico City in 1946 on part of the completion of her work under the Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship.
She was inspired by the Mexican Muralist and Graphic Print Movement of time, which harbored a group of artist with whom shared the same sentiments of empowering and educating disenfranchised people through unyieldingly beautiful and willful art. One of such artist were Francisco Mora. The two fell in love and in 1947 married.
During this time Catlett and Mora created some of their most recognized series, Dr. Catlett’s “The Negro Woman” and Mora’s “La Vida de los Mineros”. Both series were an introspective and intimate take on the lives of the people they chose to inspire and from whose struggles they were inspired to create. The love they shared for each other as husband and wife and comrades in a common cause, produced not a give and take, but a ‘give and give’.
Mora taught Catlett to engrave, a technique she implemented to create one of her most iconic pieces, “The Sharecropper”. It was a technique she would use to then portray the commonalities between Mexican working class people and African American people of hard labor, child labor, homelessness, hunger, mothers caring for their children and the beautiful physical attributes that until then were stigmatized as something as undesirable as to what artistic aesthetic should conform to be. In the 1990’s film Betty & Pancho, directed by their son and filmmaker Juan Mora, Catlett states, “I realized that I could create for my people, as the Mexican artists were creating for their people. Later of course Mexicans, became my people too.”
Mora stated, “From my wife I have learned to be more conscientious with art. I used to take drawing as an unimportant means of expression. But from her I learned that technique is very necessary to better express one’s self.”
“De mi esposa he aprendido hacer mas consiente con el arte. Yo tomaba el dibujo como una expresión simplemente sin gran importancia. Pero de ella aprendi que es necesario la técnica para poderse uno expresar mejor.”
Bonded across culture, nationality, race and gender they were able to see each other as human beings. Both were very vocal at how each others’ culture inspired and helped them grow as artist greatly. They tapped into the brilliance of each other’s minds, souls and hearts and accepted it as a means of expanding their lives and art individually and together.
Catlett and Mora shared a ferocious desire to create, and to create with purpose, learning along the way that the only road to truly living and understanding love is to give it in a way in which it has the potential to exist endlessly. Both created a vast amount of work that moved people on such a visceral level, that one cannot look away or deny the gravity of it’s message and content. It was not objective, it is purposeful.
Catlett said, “People who haven’t had much education, don’t find much in museums and galleries. They’re interested in what they can relate to. People say, ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.’ And it seems that ‘what I like’, is something that refers to us as people and that we can relate to.”
“I think that all artists have to have some basic idea of what you want to accomplish. My idea is to do something that black people understand, and I want to do it about Black Women. I’m not interested in expressing myself. Im interested in doing something that will draw people to it. I want people to feel that I’m interested in what they would like to see.”
Catlett and Mora understood deeply that art, and anything that takes a voice outside of rudimental dialect, speaks to the heart and to the human condition that every person shares. Their art work in and of itself teaches that, what we see when we encounter art is a reflection of ourselves. It is an unspoken dialogue that in reality, transcends theoretical language, and transpires within the eternal voice of human dignity. These two artists wanted people who saw their work to see a reflection of themselves as the viewer. They wanted to create an image formed in clay and paint and ink and stone and metal, from love for themselves, each other and for something greater than themselves, humanity.
On a personal note, as their granddaughter, I learned the meaning of love from my grandparents. Their love for each other and for others is also the breath I take which gives me life and the opportunity to inherit their great legacy. They taught me that love is omnipresent and that love is what gives me the chance expand myself and lend it to others. Their love and the artwork that came forth from it, allows me to see myself and to see vast potential, beauty and dignity of others. It is what I was taught and which I ultimately choose to believe.