Adventures in Feministory: RIP Elizabeth Catlett

a picture of an elderly Catlett, she is smiling and looking at the camera. A black-and-white work of hers hangs in the backgroundLast 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.

A blue poster reading Tu Hogar es lo Primero, with a woodcut of family of three pictured. The rest of the poster is text in Spanish.A poster with a large image of a devestated woman with dark skin covering her face in despair. A thin, malnourished dead child is splayed across her lap. The text reads La mortenadad de ninos...auydemos a los que quedan.

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.


A black and white picture of a middle-aged Catlett. She is seated and looking up at the camera with a bright expression. In the background is one of her prints of the face of a young black boy repeated over and over in circles.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...

Three statues by Elizabeth Catlett. The first is Stepping Out. It is cast in a bronze-colored material, a minimalist portrayal of a black woman in flowing dress. She has a hand on her hip and an arm in front of her. The second is cast in a black material and is called Standing Strong. It is another black, feminine figure in a dress gathered around her torso. She has one hand her head, one hand behind her back, and strikes a pose that is powerful and dignified. The last sculpture, carved in red cedar, is called Homage to My Black Sisters. It is the most minimalist and abstract out of all the sculptures. It is a recognizable female figure, but the head is not rounded and does not have facial features, and the torso has an oval, concave hole in it. Most notable is the arm raised high above the head in a recognized action of solidarity and pride.
Stepping Out (2000), Standing Strong (2008), and Homage to My Black Sisters (1968). Image via Auction FindsClick 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.
A collection of six prints by Elizabeth Catlett showcasing her style. Two pictures are portraits of black women rendered in a mixture of pointillism, minimalism, and texture. 'Gossip' shows two black women with short hair holding an intense discussion in front of a red-striped background. 'A second generation' has two profile head portraits of a young black man and young black woman against a fire-colored background. Below them, blue silhouettes march in a political protest. In 'Links Together,' three black women hold hands and embrace one another. in 'Walking Blindly,' a black woman in a bright pink blazer stands out strongly against a grey background, on which other figures stand and sit, dejected.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.

A picture of four large murals painted on the side of a building. The farthest right is of a painting inspired by Catlett's woodcut Sharecropper. It is of a black woman from the shoulders up, wearing a straw hat and looking over her shoulder. She is wearing an expression that is dignified, but tired.

Read More:
Elizabeth Catlett dies at 96; among 20th century's top black artists [LA Times]


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by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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