Last week, we lost one of North America's most estimable, if underrecognized creators—artist and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett. Catlett was alive for nearly all of the 20th century, witnessing America progress (and regress), her art reflecting history, legacy, and reality of her world, guided by principals of social justice and accessibility.
Catlett was born in Washington, DC in 1915. She studied design, printmaking, and drawing at Howard University (she won a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, but was denied because she was black). After graduating, she spent two years teaching, then attended the University of Iowa, becoming their first MFA grad in 1940. One of her instructors, Grant Wood (the artist behind the iconic "American Gothic") encouraged students to work with subjects and cultures they knew best. This influenced Catlett's mission of making art that represented and spoke to African Americans; her work speaking to struggle, resistance, community, identity, and beauty.
Catlett received a fellowship that let her study in Mexico in 1946. While in Mexico, she studied alternative methods of sculpture, particularly the pre-Hispanic pottery method of the coil system. She also worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Graphic Arts Workshop), a printshop dedicated to social justice. She would sculpt in the morning and then go to the Taller in the afternoons, where she learned how to work in linocuts. Since her artwork had always been politically informed, the rich tradition of populist prints and posters in Mexico was a perfect fit for her.
Two posters Catlett made with Taller de Gráfica Popular, the left one reads "Your Home Comes First," the second is on child mortality. Images via Gráfica Mexicana, where you can see a list of her other works from the studio.
Catlett once said she always wanted her art to service black people, "to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us and to make us aware of our potential." Her work especially reflected the lives of black women—as mothers, young girls, and revolutionaries ("I wanted to show the history and strength of all kinds of black women. Working women, country women, urban women, great women in the history of the United States."), as well as reflecting the pain and violence of black life, from lynching to police brutality in the '70s. Accessible art was also important to her, she told Sculpture magazine, "I have never thought about getting myself in museums or making a lot of money. I was thinking about people. I still am. Like the people you see in the subway or walking up and down the street...I wanted to work for people...who didn't have access," adding that she is always mindful of accessibility when creating.
After being arrested and detained by police in Mexico during a railroad workers strike, she decided to become a Mexican citizen in 1962 Unsurprisingly, she caught the eye of the House of Unamerican Activities Committee, and the United States denied her a visa to come back that same year. Only when the Studio Museum in Harlem staged a major exhibit of her art in 1971 did an outpouring of petitions make them change their mind. Catlett became the first woman chair in the sculpture department of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a position she held from 1959 until her retirement in 1975. She would spend the remainder of her life splitting time between New York and her home in Cuernavaco, Mexico.
As a black female artist whose art reflected unpopular (i.e., revolutionary) political opinions, her work was never recognized as much as it should have, her talent not granted the same honor and awards in the United States of say, Jasper Johns, who was also creating Americana prints around the same time. That being said, she has of course received many honors and awards. Neurberger Museum of Art at the State University of New York honored Catlett with a 50-year retrospective that traveled throughout the United States and Mexico in 1998; the International Sculpture Center awarded her its Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award; and her work can be found in art museums around the United States and Mexico. One of her last public works was a larger-than-life statue of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson that resides in New Orleans (where Catlett was made an honorary citizen).
Here are some of her sculptures...
Stepping Out (2000), Standing Strong (2008), and Homage to My Black Sisters (1968). Image via Auction Finds. Click here to browse more of Catlett's sculpture work. (Opens to interactive catalog.)
I've always been drawn to her prints (growing up, I had the book Lift Every Voice and Sing that paired Catlett's woodcuts with James Weldon Johnson's poem). Here are some of her more recent prints from the '90s and '00s.
Browse more of her prints at the University of Iowa Digital Library.
And lastly, a reproduction of her work "Sharecropper" (right), painted across the street from the Bitch Media office on Alberta St. in Portland, Oregon.
Elizabeth Catlett dies at 96; among 20th century's top black artists [LA Times]